Preparation for disaster can be a difficult exercise. Frequently, we think we have it all worked out if we are going to be off grid. The right food stored, plenty of water and water treatment supplies, light, heat, and so on. But how many of us have really put it to the test? How many of us have actually relied on that little gadget to do what we think it will? Eaten our storage food? Used our communication setup?
A great bunch of off grid preparedness folks I know have started a yearly tradition known as the Grid Down Weekend.
At an appointed time (usually 5:00pm on a Friday night), we all go to the breaker panel in our homes and shut off the main circuit breaker. It will stay off for 48 hours, and we live on and test out our disaster preparations for life off grid. We have held the Grid Down Weekend in the winter, and here in Wisconsin, cold weather both solves and causes problems.
We usually integrate our Emergency Contact Protocol during this off grid drill, as well. Most families and individuals have amateur radio setups. At pre-arranged times or pre-arranged frequencies we attempt to make contact with one another. Diverse occupations are represented in the families, from a physician to a sheet metal worker, an auto mechanic to a soldier and couple Marines. Being able to communicate to help solve problems is a valuable survival skill.
The experience of going off grid for 48 hours is very revealing. As an outdoorsman, and backpacker, I have lived outdoors for weeks at a time. Trying to maintain your family in a home without power -even for just 48 hours- presents a different sort of challenge. In this article, I’ll examine some of the challenges encountered and the lessons learned by our family during these drills.
First Problem: Retooling Heat Sources To Keep Your Pipes From Freezing
Heating your home and ensuring your pipes do not freeze and burst is one of the obvious problems when the temperatures dip below freezing. Three families that participate in the Grid Down Weekend have wood burning stoves installed in their homes, so maintaining a comfortable temperature was fairly simple, provided you had wood put up for the winter.
Our family also has an indoor-rated blue flame heater that we connected to the gas line inside our home. We had multiple CO and smoke detectors to make sure the “Indoor rated” heater did not misbehave. As an experiment, we ran the blue flame heater instead of the woodstove for half a day.
We quickly discovered that one brand of smoke detector started going off. No, not a CO detector. The CO detectors remained silent, but a smoke detector. I can only surmise that it was the water vapor produced by the blue flame heater that triggered the smoke detector. That was something that could only have been discovered by actually doing it.
Second Problem: Water Conservation
Our rural home relies on a well for its water. Our well relies on electricity. Thus, no power equals no water. As part of our preparedness plan, we store 110 gallons of water in two barrels. I devised a means to backfeed the water from the barrels into the house water system using an 12 volt RV water pump. It really worked very well, but because the system worked so well it did not really encourage water conservation.
Third Problem: Food Storage
The old maxim of “eat what you store, and store what you eat” comes in to play here. Although we had leftovers and such in the refrigerator, we elected to eat some of the storage food. We had bean soup with freeze-dried ham simmered all day on the woodstove, with cornbread made in a camping oven, and other storage food standby meals.
Our kitchen stove burns LP gas. Unfortunately, it uses electricity to run the temperature sensors for the oven, and to light the burners. When the knobs are turned, gas still comes to the burners. It was a simple task to light them using a flame.
Fourth Problem: Lighting
We chose to light the living room with lanterns, and a small LED array. I had an “Aladdin” kerosene mantle lamp. I tried to use it, but I had left it with fuel in it (you know, just in case) and when I tried to raise the wick, it wouldn’t budge. Apparently the kerosene had somehow gummed up the mechanism. I could not get it operational for anything. My propane lanterns worked well, were relatively quiet, and produced a lot of light.
The heat they produced was a bonus on a winter’s night. I have since looked into the small adapters to refill the small one-pound cylinders from a 20 pound tank. Outside of the lighted areas, headlamps were the undisputed kings of light. To have both hands free and light wherever you were looking was a blessing.
Fifth Problem: Refrigeration
Remember my comment that winter weather was a blessing and a curse? In the case of refrigeration, the cold weather is a blessing. The food from the freezer was OK for the 48 hours, but we were careful to keep the door closed, unless it was to check to make sure it was all still frozen. I had purchased several small “aquarium thermometers” for <$5/piece at Deal Extreme, which let me monitor the refrigerator and freezer temps without opening the door.
In the chest freezer, I normally keep the unused space occupied with water-filled 2 liter bottles . This provides thermal mass in the case of a power outage. I swiped three of the bottles from the freezer and put them in the refrigerator to act like ice in an cooler. When they were close to melted, I swapped in frozen ones, and put the thawed ones outside to re-freeze.
Sixth Problem: Having A Generator To Power Your Home
I have an interlock on my circuit breaker box. It allows me to safely feed power from my generator into my breaker box. I shut off all breakers, power up the generator, then turned on the loads I wanted to power one at a time, pausing after each one to allow the generator to address any start-up surge. I ran the generator for an hour in the morning and an hour at night, running the refrigerator and freezer, and some overhead lights. Check this article out to learn more about building your own portable solar generator.
I also ran the well pump, so we could take showers, do dishes and refill the water storage barrels. Thankfully, our water heater didn’t use any electricity, just LP. We also had the opportunity to rotate some fuel from our fuel storage.
Seventh Problem: Defense
Among our group, we traded unopened envelopes with “complications” in them that we had thought up for one another. These complications would be opened at prearranged times . One complication was a broken finger (I actually went through the first Grid Down Weekend with a splint on my finger. Everything was more difficult to do!), one was a fire in the kitchen, etc. One complication was a broken window and subsequent concern that there was an intruder in my house.
What do we do first? How do I “clear” my house? Is the battery in my weapon-mounted light still good? Even though I knew this was a make-believe scenario and there was no one in my house, it was an adrenaline and thought provoking exercise.
Eighth Problem: Communication
All of our ham radio setups use a deep-cycle battery to power them. We were able to communicate initially with our standard, 100 watt radios. But after a few minutes, a couple of hams with 1500 watt amplifiers got on our frequency, and the Grid Down Weekend participants weren’t able to find each other again. I take solace in the fact that there will probably be a lot fewer 1500 watt stations on the air after a SHTF event.
We did break out an AM/FM radio, and I thumb tacked up a 20 foot length of wire for an antenna. To our delight a local radio station ran “Old Time Radio Shows” on weekend evenings. It was pretty cool to have the kids entertained by a 1930’s “Lone Ranger” radio serial rather than a video game.
The Grid Down Weekend is a great way to test your preparedness level for life off grid. In fact, it is my conjecture that you are missing out on a great opportunity to actually see what really works and what you THINK works if you do not run a similar off grid drill yourself. I am not sure you can consider yourself prepared unless you have put your plan to the test. So grab your calendar, find a weekend, and shut your breaker off and live off grid for 48 hours. See where the holes in your plan are. I guarantee you’ll find at least one.