A wind storm in November 2014 cut power to a home just up the street from my house. Power outages and other utility disruptions are becoming more and more common from a variety of causes. Source: CBC News.
When discussing disaster preparedness, people often associate the subject with the survivalist movement. Although some individuals take disaster preparedness to the extreme in anticipation of a zombie invasion or the next global pandemic, there are more realistic scenarios such as extreme weather events for which all home owners should be ready.
In 2013 my neighbourhood in Toronto lost power for over 48 hours twice in the space of six months. The first was in July after a freak rainstorm dropped more rain in two hours than anticipated in two months on the City. Transit was incapacitated, sewers overwhelmed and electrical substations submerged. After walking two hours to get home from the center of the City I was greeted by a fridge and freezer full of food that would spoil despite our best efforts and all-meat dinners. Although the air-conditioning was out, we were still able to stay in our home overnight but we were without hot water as our power-vented water heater could not run its fan.
With these two experiences still fresh in our memories we are now in the process of designing several retrofits so our home will be able to withstand not only power disruptions but those of other infrastructural services as well. Below is a list of considerations that can be incorporated into any home – urban or suburban – based on each required utility.
Arguably the most important of municipal utilities, concerns for water need to extend beyond provision of hot water for showers. Maintaining a source of potable water is critical for any home. This is required in the event that municipal purification systems are compromised – a very unlikely scenario – but still possible. Methods of water purification can include boiling – whether on a cooktop, wood stove, fire or camping equipment – or through the use of hand held purifiers or chemical tablets. People who enjoy outdoor camping may already have necessary equipment that could be used in the event of utility failure. The alternative is to keep jugs of potable water on hand, but these need to be cycled through regularly as they have a shelf life.
For hot water provision a natural gas direct-vent hot water heater does not require a power-vent, but does require a chimney. If you have a power-vent or on-demand style hot water heater, consider putting it on back-up power (see electricity considerations below).
Most conventional homes in Toronto rely on either a forced air furnace or boiler system for their heating. Regardless of the type, electricity is required for the running of fans, pumps and many other components in the systems. If you do not have your heating system on back-up power, consider adding a secondary source of heating. This could be a gas fireplace, wood burning stove or pellet stove. The ability to heat the whole house to 21˚C is often not required. The minimum is to ensure water lines or occupants do not freeze in the event of winter service interruption. If you elect for a secondary system, ensure to keep adequate fuel stored that will allow heating for a bae minimum of 48 hours.
Another benefit to some secondary heating sources such as wood and pellet stoves, is that they can serve as back-up means of cooking food and boiling water if necessary. Similarly, a gas cooktop or BBQ can provide the necessary means of cooking if electricity is out.
So much of our modern lives are dependent on electricity that the capacity to hook into an external generator during power outages is becoming a popular retrofit for many homes. The generator is connected to the house through a transfer switch that is connected to the main electrical panel. This switch protects both the home and the grid. Installation of the transfer switch should be completed by a licenced electrician. The generator should be sized based on selected requirements. For example, providing power for an entire 2,500sf house requires a significantly larger unit than one sized to provide a minimum amount of power to select items such as the hot water tank vent, freezer, fridge and a few lights. If only a select number of items or outlets are placed on back-up power a sub-panel may be required to re-route the circuits to the generator.
Several additional considerations for a generator include fuel type and location. Generators can be gas, diesel or natural gas. The fuel type will help determine where the generator is placed in relation to the home (e.g. gas and diesel create exhaust fumes). A natural gas generator can be hooked directly into the home’s supply. This type of generator will automatically start regardless of the length of the power outage. The natural gas systems are more expensive to set up but do not require fuel storage or manual system cleaning and will not run out of fuel.
Another option for electricity is solar or wind power to a battery array. A small solar panel system can run a few lights and small gadgets (e.g. 12V car accessories) and may be all that is required. Of course this is all in addition to candles and flashlights.
Many people have cut the cord with traditional telco services in favour of cellular networks. However, it is recommended to keep access to a telephone land line that can work when the electrical grid does not. A cellphone with a dead battery isn’t much use in the case of emergency and often cell towers go down in extreme power outages.
As our cities grow, more and more demand is being placed on all municipal services. Often the government is unable to keep up with demand and aging infrastructure is more prone to interruption. With increase demand coupled with extreme weather events, the probability of more frequent and longer infrastructure disruptions is high. It might not be a zombie apocalypse, but being prepared for inevitable utility interruptions has become very important.
If you would like to learn more about retrofitting your home, feel free to drop us a note.