The great Texas Power Outage of 2020 was staggering in its magnitude as well as its adjacent failures. In addition to below freezing temperatures inside our house, we and our neighbors endured burst pipes, lack of running water, and a bleak sense of helplessness as the infrastructure failed around us. Overall, our family came through it alright, including narrowly averting two frozen pipes by improvising old socks and hot water into a makeshift warming system. But witnessing first hand how quickly everything can go to hell around you in libertarian/feudal Texas did make me want to plan ahead for future traumas. I’m incredibly privileged to have an employer that gave me the time off with no questions asked, and we fortunately don’t have any health conditions (like recovering from COVID on oxygen, or needing a CPAP or dialysis) that would have been life-threatening in a power outage.
There are some other lessons I still need to work on as well: for example, my backup supply of fresh water was frozen solid in the 55 gallon drum I was storing it in. But the number one issue was having enough electricity to maintain minimal levels of heat, maintain refrigerators, and keep somewhat connected to the community. Getting a backup power strategy has become a big focus for me. I’ll outline the work to date here for those who might be interested.
The Best Case Scenario for Backup Electricity
As I was starting to research a plan, I knew one thing that I didn’t want to do if I could help it: store gasoline on site. In addition to being dirty and environmentally unsound, dangerous to store, and generally gross, if it’s going to be stored, gasoline needs to be treated with a special chemical to keep it from breaking down. My first idea was to get a Generac or similar “fail-over” generator that automatically starts itself up and runs until utility power is restored. Typically, these are powered by natural gas, which is a pretty good source of power in a place like Texas. I say “pretty good,” because natural gas distribution was also vulnerable during the snowpocalypse of 2020, and in flood and especially earthquake prone areas, it’s still at risk during a disaster, but these units are a staple of the wealthy in more snow prone areas and came highly recommended.
What held me back ultimately from getting one of these suburban castle power devices was availability. After the storm, there was a massive shortage, not of generators, but of technicians available to install them. After dealing with one local installer that flaked on me and multiple shady or bizarre businesses that had suddenly gotten into the business of installing generators, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I had heard of people in Louisiana plugging construction-type generators into their homes (and only a few dying of carbon monoxide poisoning), and I thought that was something I could do. I cajoled my local electrical contractor into assisting me, but right before I did that, I discovered the EcoFlow line of power banks.
Similar to the big Tesla Powerwall units that people have installed in their homes to store excess solar power generated, the EcoFlow devices can be installed in your house, draw electricty from a wall socket, and if carefully managed, be able to power your home at survival levels for a number of days. The bonus is that you don’t have to give your money to anything related to Tesla and that moron CEO. A friend told me about a Kickstarter for the most advanced model, the EcoFlow Delta Pro, which can be paired with up to two more units for significant power generation. They can also be plugged into smart switches that automatically transfer to battery power during outages, and the batteries themselves can also be recharged by solar power, an auxilliary gas generator, and even at an Electric Vehicle charging station. And because they’re basically big-ass batteries controlled by a computer, all of the devices can work in concert to keep you powered for extended periods of time. And they be controlled by an app on your phone.
Brilliant, right? Well, the downside is that as of December 27, 2021, the batteries are sitting in a ship off the coast of Los Angeles, waiting to be unloaded and packaged to ship. Given that the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a colder than average January in Central Texas, and that Texas’ power grid is still unprepared for severe weather, I decided to have an alternate plan while I waited.
Not Great, But We Don’t Have To Die in the Frozen Hellscape of Texas
Not knowing when the batteries will be delivered, I decided to initiate Plan B and bought a big, construction-type generator to have until I can get the batteries and situate them in my home. I went with a Champion 100891, which should supply ample power to the home. I chose this model because it’s a dual fuel unit, which means that it runs on either gasoline or propane. Propane is less of a hassle to store, and I can always use the fuel on the bbq grill after the winter season. I am also hopeful that I can sell the generator once the batteries arrive.
Gas generators are a bummer for a lot of reasons. First off, it’s super easy to kill yourself running a generator. During Texas’ February disaster, more people needed emergency care for carbon monoxide poisoning than for hypothermia and cold exposure. And of course, burning a lot of fossil fuel in your yard isn’t great for the environment. Generators require regular upkeep like oil changes and battery maintenance. You will also need to protect the engine from inclement weather when it is running and when stored. And the noise of most generators will annoy your neighbors and possibly alert thieves of its presence. As usual, it’s sort of a choose your own trauma game, Texas-style.
In the next post, I’ll show the basic setup required to plug the generator directly into your home power panel and not kill utility workers.