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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

How to Prepare for Power Outages

I live in the Philadelphia area, and that puts me in the direct line of fire for two major water-type attacks. We get the remnants of hurricanes in the summertime and what’s known as nor’easters in the winter. (For those not from the Northeast, that’s a cyclone of cold frozen hatred that hovers up our coast.) Sure, they each bring their own brand of natural strife, but they also make us vulnerable to every geek’s nightmare: the dreaded power outage. And since my place fully runs on electricity (no gas or oil), I’ve had to develop a playbook for those dark times.

Whether it’s feet of snow or downed power lines, we need our electricity. Having been a Cub Scout as a lad, I am thankfully well prepared, but I realize that there are probably many people out there that aren't. This guide is for you to bookmark forever.


The best all-around solution is also the most expensive. You can get your home rigged with a built-in generator that will take over when your main power goes out.

For full-home protection, a generator will set you back a few thousand dollars. It may be pricey, but it is still a viable option for those who've got the scratch, and pretty much solves everything all in one go. You could invest in a portable generator to save money, but the money you save comes at the cost of how long and how many devices it can power. Oh, and regardless of what you do, make sure to follow these generator safety tips from the US Department of Energy.

Preventative Measures: Protect Your Electronics

So first off—protecting your electronics isn’t paranoia. I’ve seen it all in my IT pro day job, including boxes that fry for no apparent reason. Protecting your gear from the spikes or surges a power outage may bring is important. You may rely on cloud services, but your desktop workstation or gaming rig still needs you to look out for them. Forget having to redownload your stuff again—replacing hardware, especially these days, is out of control. You may need to trade in your first-born to replace a video card (and not even one that does ray tracing).

Spikes happen. In rough weather power lines can fall from the weight of ice and snow, felled trees can cause massive damage, and transformers can pop in a glittering array of sparks.

What does that mean? That $5.99 surge protector you bought and plugged your computer/TV/game console into isn’t really doing you a lot of good. Instead of cheap surge protectors, battery backups or UPS (uninterruptible power supply) units are a far better choice to protect your hardware. In addition to protection from spikes and surges, they pick up the load for everything plugged into it when power drops. This gives you a window of time to shut down your equipment properly without the risk of them going up in cinders or losing any data.

In IT we use massive ones to make sure servers and other large-scale devices stay up during power issues, but 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 450 VA or 650 VA 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. For a modern gaming rig, you’re probably looking at something more in the 1200 to 1500 VA range to keep it safe. Which is still only around $200.

And what’s that compared to trying to replace an RTX 3080?

Let There Be Light

The worst part of an outage is when night falls, and in the winter months that can come early in the evening. Without power your place is enveloped in darkness, and basic tasks like just walking to the kitchen can result in slips, bumps, and unnecessary injury in general.

The first thing I keep on hand—in strategic places around the house—are LED lanterns. They’re low-cost, use very little power, and can go for months without having to replace the batteries. Keep one near a stairwell or on the kitchen counter so you can navigate your now-enshrouded home safely. And if you need to go somewhere else in the house? They’re portable. While being able to traverse your own place safely is important, the secondary effect is eliminating the need for the flashlight app on your phone, which is usually a battery vampire.

And since you’re likely going to have to be better friends with your analog entertainment, setting a lantern next to your couch or favorite chair instantly creates a cozy reading nook in the dark. And if you have several to spare, you have a lit gaming surface for tabletop RPG’s or board games (which everyone should always have in stock).

Alternatively, I have a couple of shake flashlights that rely on human power instead of double A’s. Shaking the flashlight runs a magnet back and forth through a coil to store charge in a capacitor, and voilà! A powered light. They're not only effective but fun for kids too, and if nothing else give you a solid 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 sound obvious, but don’t act like just having one didn’t get you an extra heart container in The Legend of Zelda back in the day. Having candles (and, of course, matches or lighters) can again light a path for you to get 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 contribute visual and olfactory ambiance to the occasion.

Right now I’m running a scent called Black Tea and Lemon because I have excellent taste. I even have the sadly limited-edition A1 steak-scented ones, so, you know, you can find whatever floats your boat.

If you have a fireplace, building a fire is an easy and cheap way to not only light a room up but heat it up when the mercury starts to drop. If you have gas or oil heat this may not be too big of an issue for you, but I have an electric heat pump, so my living room fireplace is my go-to power outage hangout.

I try to always keep a cord of firewood on hand during the winter along with kindling or starter cubes in my inventory, but if you don't have kindling and aren’t the Human Torch, this might add a degree of difficulty. And that’s why I keep paper phone books instead of pitching them. Sure, “you’ve got the internet,” 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, we can keep the phone book in business for alternative service in our digital age. Look at that. I'm a jobs creator.

The Juice Must Flow

So now we know how to prevent our larger electronics from taking hits, but what about your mobile tech? Your smartphone is probably the most important tool you have: It can still handle calls even when the power’s out, and you can get data on your cellular network. If you have it as part of your data plan (you should) it can also serve as a Wi-Fi hotspot to provide laptops and tablets with wireless data. All combined, this can be a crushing power draw. And without electricity, those connected devices will start running out of juice soon too. Keeping portable chargers and battery packs in stock and juiced up is a great way to keep power going for your mobile devices.

Now before you go buy some random ones, take an inventory of what you have, how much juice those things need, and what kind of plugs you require. Let’s look at a basic example:

  • Tushar’s phone: Samsung Note20 Ultra – 4,500 mAh battery / USB-C.
  • Tushar’s tablet: Samsung Galaxy S6 Lite – 7,040 mAh battery / USB-C.

To be able to fully charge both devices once when they drop to zero with a full charge would require the sum of those plus about 25 percent, which is 14,425 mAh. I’m not about to get into rated versus real battery capacity and efficiency here, so for now just trust me. So to be safe, I should have 15,000 mAh in capacity available in my power banks. I mean I actually have 20,000, but you know. That only set me back $100, and we have some great suggestions here. This puts mobile gaming back on the menu, and extends the life of my phone’s Wi-Fi hotspot. Now that many laptops also come with USB-C fast charging and power, that equipment can also be included in your calculations.

For some additional references on mobile gaming more advanced than your phone, a Nintendo Switch has about a 4,300 mAh battery, and if you’re one of the folks that reserved a Steam Deck for this winter, that battery should run about the same.

Larger things that require AC power and outlets for, like a TV, you’re going to need an electric power source or generator. Again, the more juice you want the more it’s going to cost. You can get a 1440 W power station with 660 Wh capacity for around $750, and that can charge your gaming laptop and if needed, run a TV for about 10 hours. If you have a Chromecast handy then you have your streaming apps at your fingertips on a large screen.

Fuel the Body

We've talked about fueling your tech, now let's talk about fueling your body. Depending on whether your range is gas or electric (and how long you can keep your fridge—which we assume is running on electricity—closed and cold), you may need some other options for hot, healthy food.

It should go without staying to have chips and crackers and all other sorts of snacks, but none of that is a meal. You have no idea how long a power outage is going to last, your refrigerator isn’t working, and really friends, have some self-respect! Keep the pantry stocked with bread and shelf-stable sandwich materials—PB&J or otherwise. I also make sure I’ve got some canned goods too. 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 all electric and you have dietary needs, really have to cook, or are super picky about, you know, having hot food, then a small butane, 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, and those butane cassette grills YouTubers use for cooking videos are about the same price. And while I know we’re trying to shield ourselves from the elements, I’ve braved going outside to use my full-size propane grill when necessary.

This guide isn't by any means complete, but 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 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. And don’t forget: Sometimes the best emergency tool at your disposal are your friends and neighbors.

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