Home Non-Energy - Preparing Homes for Future Blackouts

We all have stories about losing power in our home for several hours—or days—and many people suspect that power interruptions are becoming more frequent. They may be right; unfortunately, the utility data are so sketchy that nobody can say for certain. But declining investment in maintenance on the part of utilities, plus the increased frequency of extreme weather caused by climate change, are almost certain to keep the blackouts coming.

One response is to buy a home generator. That’s understandable, and it’s justified for homes with critical needs. After Hurricane Sandy, generator sales are booming. But on-site generators are expensive, dangerous, and dirty. They are also unreliable, which consumers discover only when they actually need one. That’s the supply-side solution; but it’s also worth considering how greater energy efficiency might play a role in dealing with the problem of blackouts.

Insulating a home beyond code makes it more blackout survivable. Power outages have an unfortunate habit of happening when it’s hot, cold, or unpleasant outside; indeed, extreme weather is often the cause of the outage. So a reasonable precaution is to enable the home to maintain habitable conditions for as long as possible without heating or cooling. That is best accomplished with more insulation and tighter construction. Installing windows that ensure natural ventilation (without compromising the home’s security) also makes the home more livable during both extreme and normal conditions. Building codes typically require insulation levels suitable for average weather, not for the exceptional cold snap or heat storm. Also, building codes assume that the heating and cooling systems are functioning. That’s not the case when the power is out.

Modest thermal upgrades may be all that is needed to carry a home through a second night without power (and avoid spending a night in a motel or shelter). These upgrades may also prevent the pipes from freezing for a few critical hours. A superefficient refrigerator will prevent food from spoiling for a few more hours, too. Unlike generators, these measures provide benefits all the time, not just during emergencies.

Maintaining operation of sump pumps is key to preventing irreversible damage in low-lying homes during a wet power outage. Many people buy generators first and foremost to power their sump pumps. An especially efficient sump pump makes sense, because it can run longer off a battery, perhaps avoiding the need for a generator altogether. Adding a DC power option—and linking that to a PV unit—would make a home even more self-reliant.

It’s also essential to maintain emergency lighting and communications during a power outage. Rapid progress in LED lighting technologies now allows a superefficient primary lighting system to also function as a backup, possibly with an alternative DC supply. Communications are more challenging. During Hurricane Sandy, subscribers to Verizon’s FiOS network found that their Internet and telephone systems quickly died because the backup batteries failed before the promised eight hours. Network equipment could be designed to switch into more energy-saving modes (mostly by operating at lower rates of data transfer) during blackouts to extend battery life. These modes could also save energy during normal conditions.

Can these upgrades be sold? Yes, if they are packaged as a new category of home performance based on resistance to extreme weather events and extended power interruptions. The package would include both supply- and demand-side measures. It would be selling peace of mind and security rather than payback time. (People use different parts of their brain for those kinds of decisions.) And even if there is no emergency, these homes will be saving more energy 99.9% of the time.

- Alan Meier


This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Home Energy magazine.

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Comment by Tom DelConte on January 14, 2013 at 7:37am

Hello Alan,
1. I believe most of us will agree that power outages are a negative and uncomfortable happening, especially long ones in the winter or summer.
2. Greater energy efficiency will not solve the problem of blackouts. "The powers that be" desire us, the population subject to their mandates, to buy generators and spend on energy efficiency. It might save us money, but we are already past the global CO2 tipping point.
3. Retrofitting a home to 'survive' a typical 12 hour power outage is prohibitively expensive to the consumer. They are more financially better off if they just wait the thing out. This is common knowledge to most people, except for those who encourage us in useless expenditures of disposable income without true fruition or payback.
4. Please clarify for the rest of us your paragraph four. A motel room is $99. A modest retrofit[a 1990's DOE term] is $25,000 in 2013! Food in most refrigerators will spoil within 8 hours, the superefficient fridge is beyond the reach of most consumers, who can't see how they're going to get through the month!
5. If one is in an unfortunate situation that requires a sump pump, yes, hopefully they have a regular old $500 generator with enough fuel. Superduper and batteries? Come on.
6. Who on earth told you a FIOS backup battery lasts for 8 hours?! Please do not publish that in your magazine, as they will correct you. Emergency lighting is commonly handled with flashlights, candles, and a generator by us middle class types. Verizon FIOS batteries are good for only 15 minutes! You also must have avail. an old phone line powered phone! Most of us use cell phones in 2013 in emergencies or blackouts. You must have an UPS on all of your computer equip. to make use of FIOS 15 minutes; few do.
7. Ahh yes, the conclusion! First, we are not here to sell. If one was here to sell, your proposed package can only be sold to the ultra wealthy, panic room types. Supply side Reagan, Arthur Laffer supply side economics was never real, it was sold to us in the 80's! The best rule of sales is: just don't sell. Let's see, some rich guy was dumb enough to listen to me and spend $55,000 on upgrades that they won't ever actually use, probably ever, and not see any benefit from, with impossibly long payback? When we're way past the tipping point, and every sale actually has an environmental cost associated with it, you would espouse fooling the rich? They understand that: it's just another form of taxation. The middle class, however, understands how to hold onto a buck in the face of scams coming at them from all angles! Good luck "selling" this "program" to the masses who disappear monthly from the unemployment rolls into a life of who knows what!

Comment by Jonathan Beers on January 7, 2013 at 2:09pm

Other options to consider: An inverter hooked up to your car's battery  http://bit.ly/URRX63    With a carefully chosen inverter, you can run several items, including a furnace w/ an ECM motor (if the wire to the furnace is equipped with a plug. If hard-wired I believe you'd need a transfer switch for your inverter. One advantage over gaoline-powered portable generators is that the gasoline in your car is fresh, so you don't have to maintain a gas can w/ acceptable fuel. Refilling a portable generator in the middle of a storm can be a challenge.

Gas water heaters that aren't power vented will still supply hot water during an outage. Temporarily turning up the water temperature and filling tubs, sinks, and large buckets or other containers could supply some heat (and probably more humidity than you want).

Many gas fireplaces will fire up without electricity (although the blower will not). The heat won't be distributed, but at least it's a warm hearth for a room.

Water-powered sump pumps are available as backups. (Assuming you don't have a well pump, you'll likely still have water pressure)

I've noticed many sustainability advocates have branched out into resilience. Here's a link:

http://resilientcommunities.org/

Comment by Richard Scott Mills on January 7, 2013 at 2:00pm

Tom What is your 'specific response' to 'your air going haywire on a july 100 degree day'. Super insulation and an ERV does work, by keeping your temp stable for up to 72 hours, giving you time to fix the problem. 

Sounds like your more upset with the government than good science and modern technology which saves money for the individual. Energy efficiency is tax free profit. For every dollar invested in your homes EE returns $2.50 in tax free savings. What's wrong with that?  

Time for you to look a little deeper into high performance building science and get off the rant. 

Comment by John Porterfield on January 7, 2013 at 9:47am

This is a great concept.  I had approached the Illinois Institute of Technology with this concept as a student "Interprofessional" project (IPRO) some years back and will repeat this suggestion.  There is no "one size fits all" energy project that will be priority for every household, rather we need to tailor products and practices to match what individuals want.  (Some may prefer an "other than carbon" way to keep their intruder alarm functional during a power/down.) 

BTW, the proposed PV package is among a number of practices and products that might be superior to energy biz as usual - see "Now for Something Different" in the HVAC discussion.   The "invisible hand of the market" does not automatically provide a less costly or more elegant way of reducing energy use.

Comment by Richard Scott Mills on January 7, 2013 at 7:19am

In response to Tom Delconte business as usual approach. Since we are "past the tipping point on global CO2 and that the powers that be only wants us to spend our money on generators and energy efficiency." Whats is your answer to these problems? Candles and hunkering down until the powers that be fix the blackout?

Moving building code to PassivHaus levels will be accomplished by 2030. Technology to build zero energy homes at no extra cost are available today. Combining a small PV system 1.5 kw (cost under aprox $5,000) with a plug in hybrid vehicle that can interconnect between home/grid/vehicle would have the resiliency necessary to to keep a home functioning through most black outs. It would be financed through a home mortgage with the savings paying the note. Energy retrofits would take place during reconstruction or rehabilitation the cost at that time would be much lower than retrofitting alone. Most homes can become zero+ energy for the $25,000 you call 'modest' at a cost of about $100 per month on a 30 year mortgage. I am sure that most people in PA are paying more than that in utilities. I believe in the old fashioned motto's of "Be Prepared" and "A penny saved is a penny earned" than yours of "candles and flashlights to save a buck."

Comment by James McGarvey on January 3, 2013 at 6:44am

Thanks Alan for the post.  I believe, as many of our nations experts, that the grid is one of the biggest problems facing our country.  We have the possibility of a breakdown of the system and Congressman Bartlett has led the fight to have congress spend the funds to harden our grid.  He introduced a new bill in August of 2012 that everyone should be familiar with.

Washington, Aug 3, 2012 -

Congressman Roscoe Bartlett held a news conference today in Washington, DC about the introduction of his new bipartisan legislation, H. Res. 762, that would encourage community based civil defense preparations, including distributed generation of 20% of local electricity needs. 

Here is quote from his news conference 
Congressman Bartlett noted, "The U.S. electric grid is one of our nation's 18 critical infrastructures. However, none of the other 17 will function without electricity. America's grid is vulnerable to widespread blackouts of extended duration. The federal government and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) agree that there are five separate Low Frequency - High Impact (LFHI) events that could each inflict extended duration grid blackouts, potentially continent-wide including: cyber attack; solar geomagnetic storm electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), coordinated physical attack; nuclear EMP; or a pandemic. In light of these known risks, my legislation encourages communities and organizations to generate at least 20% of their own electricity demand to ensure independent operation of critical infrastructure and vital national security missions and to provide adequate supplies of basic necessities and services. It is critical that we in Congress send the message that it is in the interest of national security that every community and institution, especially our military, reestablish their capabilities to be self-sufficient independent of the grid. We also need to encourage individuals to develop and implement a plan that will provide for themselves and their family sufficient food, water and other emergency supplies necessary to weather an electricity outage when there is no one there to call."
Everyone should read Dr Pry's book (only available on Kindle but you do not need a Kindle to read) on the Congressional testimony over the last few years on the grid issue.   Click Here for Amazon link to book.  Click Here for his website and new organization trying to inform the public of the threat
My wife and I are almost done building our new home and we have gone out of the way to be safe and comfortable if the grid is down for an extended period.  We are trying to hit the PassivHaus standard and our home would heat most of the winter here in Asheville, NC with just internal heat gains.  We installed a small Jotel wood stove for emergency heating, LP for cooking, and are putting in a small solar panel to run a few LED lights.  Also we have put away 6 months of food and water.  Cheaper than a years cost for fire insurance.
But in closing this is another good argument for energy efficient homes in the US.

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