The answer to “How long will the blackout last?” is the main reason why I spent so much time talking about the odds and the consequences of a power blackout in other posts. The odds of experiencing a long blackout are higher than you might expect. Plus, the consequences grow significantly as the length of time without electricity does.
Neither the odds nor the consequences matter much if the blackout only lasts a few seconds, minutes, or even hours. Why will we be measuring blackouts in days?
If you were thinking that a PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutoff) couldn’t happen to you because you live in a safe area, then you may want to review the maps of high fire danger areas your power lines may pass through, in my previous post.
In most of the San Francisco bay area, especially those with the densest populations, development took place in valleys between hills. Those with the most trees and underbrush are less densely populated. It’s a patchwork of population and fuel.
In areas like the Diablo Valley of Contra Costa County, blackouts don’t last long. Unless you live in the more rural canyons and densely forested areas on the hillsides and canyons, you don’t experience blackouts very often.
In the past, one power failure at a time would be isolated and the Utility would restore power to neighbors nearby, automatically, within seconds. Then somebody would inspect the area of the outage and repair it, too. Blackouts usually lasted a few seconds or minutes, but rarely for hours. Never for days.
In fact, the outage was how they knew there was a problem, and where. PG&E would send out a truck and the linemen would repair the lines very quickly.
Forecast Power Outage
But a PSPS is triggered by a weather forecast, so first, we have to turn off the electricity before the dangerous weather starts. Then we wait for the weather to become less hot, less dry, and/or less windy. So that’s why these blackouts will be long enough to measure in days, but that’s not counting the final step of the process of a PSPS.
Aftermath of Power Outage
Once the weather event is over, while it is possible that no damage was done to the grid, the Utility can’t just turn the power back on to test it. True, if it sparked a few fires, at least the weather is better. But, the possibility of sparking multiple fires all at once is not a risk anyone is willing to take.
Everything will have to be inspected first, and turned on sequentially. PG&E employees and contractors will be working long and hard, especially after a PSPS blackout.
Days in a Row Without Power
As my San Diego contact stated, their Public Safety Power Shutoffs have lasted between three and seven days in a row. There, Santa Ana wind events often last as long as three days by themselves.
As PG&E says, “24 to 48 hours after extreme weather has passed,” is how long it will take to restore power to most people, so, add that to the weather event. They recommend “customers prepare for outages that could last longer than 48 hours.” Said another way, 48 hours is the minimum time without power, not the average or expected.
So, figure at least one day for the bad weather (possibly three or four), and another day or two after that for inspections. That gets us to a minimum of two days, and a high probability of a blackout lasting three days or more. We have often experienced triple digits in areas of high danger for as long as three days in a row in Contra Costa and the Bay Area.
Unless you come from tornado or hurricane country, or the Sierra foothills, somewhere, you are not prepared.
Why prepare for power outages now?
Before I earned my living helping people go solar, started this SolarWithSandra.com blog, worked for a movie studio, or managed a computer store, I was a writer of screenplays. Imagination is a problem-solving and prevention tool.
One of my first stories was one set after a monetary collapse, where there is no money. The first draft was written long ago, after an economics class I took at St. Mary’s College of Moraga. Based on recurring economic cycles from history that I projected a few months into the future, it basically was set in the wild west. My characters lived in Pacheco and Pleasant Hill, under third-world conditions as a natural consequence of there being no money for trade.
When I wrote it, few had solar, and everyone was dependent on the grid. In my story, the monetary system had collapsed and taken the utilities and government budgets with it.
After a monetary collapse, there is no way to pay or be paid other than bartering. Instead of “going solar” my characters had to “go outhouse” and “go water well” because large collective systems were the first to fail. I imagined our local oil refineries paid their employees with gasoline coupons, and this became a local currency. Some power company employees were willing to perform maintenance on a voluntary basis or for barter, but there was no way for utility customers to pay the utility. State government was bankrupt, and so was the country.
A local blackout shouldn’t be that bad…
PG&E (despite being in Chapter 11), isn’t going anywhere, and I’m sure we’ll continue to pay our bills, but that’s because these power blackouts will only last as long as a few days. Not enough time for a wild west or “Mad Max” scenario to develop.
But, as I described in detail, fear, panic, and stress are bigger problems than having no money, and they can become contagious in an instant.
I don’t want to live that type of movie. Compared to a monetary collapse, a week without electricity at home is easy.
The Blackout Block Party Plan
There’s a big difference between civil unrest with riots and looting, and a block party. However, it’s also a very thin line, and desperation and fear are both cause and consequence.
The best time to talk to your neighbors is long before the 48 hour notice arrives and everyone runs around like crazy. Whether you start with those right next door, or include all those on Nextdoor.com, spend just a little time communicating how, if a long power blackout is called for the neighborhood, they have an ally in you. It may be enough to keep panic at bay, and reduce stress. Both are enemies of peace and good decision-making.
Knowing that there are people with skills and resources around, and that we’ll all get through this together, is what keeps a block party from resembling a riot or bar-fight. A conversation, now.
Let the preppers prep, let the procrastinators delay, let everyone do what they do. But at least establish a tone and a relationship before it happens, if it ever does.
PG&E says they’ll try to give us 48 hour notice. We should also watch the weather forecasts. But, plenty of people will be caught unprepared for an unknown length of time without electricity.
If the power goes out because of an earthquake, tsunami, flood, tornado, monetary collapse, or terrorist act, don’t expect to get any notice, at all.
The way my neighbors handle a prolonged power outage has a direct impact on whether I feel safe at home. See if you agree with me about how well we can survive a long power outage in the style of “Mad Max” or “Little House on the Prairie.”
Reach Out and Prepare
There are plenty of other resources for information on how to survive a long blackout or other sudden visit to the old west. PG&E plans some informational open houses about the PSPS plan. But I did make an attempt to see what my utility providers and others have planned, so I’ll mention those, here. You’ll want to do more research on your own.
1. Water during a long blackout
My water company, Contra Costa Water District, is in Concord near me, so I stopped by to ask a few questions. Jennifer Allen, their Director of Public Affairs, told me that they use electricity to pump water up to tanks at higher elevations. Then they use gravity to supply water pressure. So, they don’t anticipate a problem, at least initially (they are still making plans). But she strongly suggested everyone always keep an emergency supply, anyway, and that everyone conserve water use for as long as the blackout lasts. And, here’s what EBMUD has to say.
And not just for power failures. Earthquakes, too, could break pipes.
She also reminded that the water in the tanks is used to fight fires, so should we have power outages, conserving water is a good idea.
Both PG&E and Contra Costa Water District recommend we be prepared for disruptions that don’t come with 48 hour warnings like a PSPS. PG&E published a list of recommendations. There are plenty of lists online from preppers and insurance companies and others.
A bucket to save shower water can be used to flush toilets. Just keep young children away from the bucket. This is a simple way to conserve water by using it twice, without having to carry it long distances to the garden or elsewhere.
2. Grocery stores and restaurants during a blackout
I talked to someone at Safeway in Concord, near Sun Valley Mall. He says they have generators for their refrigeration units and cash registers at that store, but not the credit card readers. They have a gas station, so they have fuel for the generators. Gas stations can’t pump gas or take credit cards without electricity.
It was unclear to me (and possibly to him) if they would have enough fuel for however long the blackout lasts, perhaps for three or more days. I’m lucky to live near oil refineries, but I imagine there could be shortages, anyway.
You should ask if your grocery store plans to remain open if they are in a PSPS. In San Diego, restaurants basically lose whatever is in their freezers.
Consider using your washing machine tub as a giant ice bucket.
Starbucks won’t be able to heat water. Just sayin’.
If your water heater uses electronic ignition, neither will you unless you have a gas stove and matches. Or a generator.
If only a few hundred homes are without power, people can drive to other areas to get gas, or food, but the bigger the area, the further you have to go, and the longer the lines will be. Without traffic signals, or streetlights at night, or if there’s a curfew, you may not want to plan on it. Besides, your navigation may or may not work.
I called AT&T, my cell carrier, and customer service assured me that their back-up power would kick in.
I’m not very confident the person I spoke to was aware that the rules have changed regarding power outages. Phone carriers don’t typically have multi-day power failures in this part of California, so I’m not sure they’ll be ready. Demand will be high because people will text and stream until their batteries die.
My contact in San Diego said that the cell towers may have about 7-8 hours of battery backup. If our power is out for three to seven days and nights, that won’t be enough. I haven’t seen any data on this, but assume they are still working on their own preparations.
It may also be a good idea for people to stay off their phones. I can easily see that without electricity, if everyone uses cell data, instead, the mobile phone system could be compromised. As they always say after an earthquake: stay off the phone unless it’s an emergency.
Landlines with telephones that don’t need any additional power supply, should keep working since the power comes through the phone line, not the power line. However, I’m not sure that they’ve been tested for a multi-day outage, because telephone utilities have come to rely on shorter outages, and ultimately they must still get their power from the same sources we do. I’m pretty sure my Internet-based line is only supposed to last about 5 hours on the battery at my house.
Things we take for granted
Do you have phone numbers memorized? Do you have a phone book? How will you recharge your mobile phone?
Plan to have a charged up power-bank or cigarette lighter adapter for the car, so you can charge your cell phone. Make friends with the Ham radio operator in the neighborhood–you know, the one with the antennas. Hope he’s got a generator or solar with mini-grid and battery back-up.
For those interested in seeing what their rooftop solar options are, contact me for an appointment. I’m giving away solar powered USB phone chargers while supplies last. They can recharge or power USB flashlights and fans, too.
Organizing the neighborhood for a long blackout
I’m thinking of using Nextdoor.com to see if people in my immediate neighborhood would like to have at least one brainstorming disaster preparedness meeting this summer. If it does nothing else, it should help us reduce panic if we have a PSPS or other event, just to know we’re not alone.
My neighborhood is full of contractors with skills. I’m guessing there are quite a few of them with generators, too.
It occurred to me that maybe we should all buy a can of gas or propane so that we have something to barter for power to recharge batteries or phones. I don’t know how much fuel they would typically have available, but it seems like a good idea not to store it all in one place.
It would be good to know who has medical training in the neighborhood, and who can provide security, or who can baby sit, or entertain. We could plan to have potlucks.
You’ll probably forget something. Knowing your neighbors have your back would be a very good thing.
Neighborhood defense during a long blackout
In my post called “Power Failure: The Adventure” I talked about what could happen when the news advertises that your neighborhood is going to be without power and evil-doers invade us from neighboring areas. Not saying it will be a problem, just saying we have solutions if it is.
Flash mob defense system
Most vehicles have alarms, so the plan could be that anyone who hears looters or break-ins or other commotions can summon help from the neighbors by setting off a car alarm. If everyone set their own alarm off in response, I imagine that, alone, would scare off many potential bad guys.
Flash mob defense system, even without working phones or Internet.
We already have mail and package thieves, car break-ins and burglaries. Those people will still be desperate during a power outage, and maybe more so.
Some may be hungry. We could feed them. Or read up on citizen’s arrest.
Not to mention, we could have other dangers, from mountain lions to local fires, or a trip-and-fall accident. Even boredom. It will be dark at night, barring a full moon.
Idle hands and security checkpoints
If it makes sense, we could block roads and check to see who is coming in. A smile and a wave is enough to discourage bad guys in many cases. Look them in the face. I used to get rid of shoplifters by pointing my camera.
And do you know where your teens are? They might be having fun, but law enforcement will be in the dark, too. Somebody with a talent for organizing can certainly put teens to work.
Teenagers like to stay up late and sleep in, so why not give them the late shift on security? We have coaches, former military, and others with skills, to supervise them.
I don’t really want the National Guard, or even the Sheriff’s department worried about my street. I also dislike the idea of a curfew. The best way to avoid both is to organize, and be the street that does not need attention (lather, rinse, repeat).
Street by street, the more self-control we have, the safer everyone will be.
Don’t wait until the 48 hour warning.
Meet your neighbors now. Reassure them and yourself that we are allies.
Figure out how to be prepared so you aren’t fighting with everyone else for what you need in a blackout.
“Preppers” not so crazy. Just ready.
What about you? Don’t tell me you have cash, but what else would you invest in before the next announced Public Safety Power Shutoff, regular power failure, or natural disaster hits? How long do you think a blackout will last? Please comment below, and Bookmark, Like, Share, Follow, or Subscribe while the power is on. Contact me with questions or suggestions.
Considering solar and need to talk? I have a limited number of solar-powered phone chargers for early appointments. Knowledge is power. Contact me.