Cracks in My Comfort Zone

James Wallace Harris, 2/18/21

I can’t believe it’s been a whole week since we lost power for 32 hours in the ice storm last week. We lost power three times during that week and I’ve been living with constant anxiety we’d lose it again, especially when it got down to one degree and some of our pipes began to freeze. The inside temp got down to 44 degree during the ice storm outage when it was still in the upper twenties outside. It scares me to think what living in this house would be like if it was near zero outside. That was before the snow, when I was thinking of draining the pipes, putting the cats in carriers, and convincing Susan we need to drive to a hotel. She didn’t want to abandon ship though. Her parents survived a week in this house without power back in the big ice storm of 1994. We bought this house in 2008 after they died. They had used the gas fireplace to stay warm then. Susan was afraid it might blow up if I tried to light it this week since it probably hasn’t been used since that 1994 ice storm.

Looking over the top of my monitor through the big window behind it I see our backyard covered with snow, and giant icicles hanging from the roof. It’s now a much warmer outside today, 24 degrees, but I’m still anxious. (And I’m overjoyed it’s going to get to 27 degrees today.) I’m so looking forward to next week when promised temps rise above freezing. All this frigid weather and power outages have made me very contemplative about the future. I turn 70 this year. This little neighborhood blackout has shown me how dependent we are on certain needs and comforts.

If you don’t feel like you’re getting old, or worried about being set in your ways, you probably don’t need to read this essay. Even though the power has been back on for days, I’m still chilled to the bone, still wearing three layers of clothes. Growing old means growing wimpier. Living in a rich technological society has made us addicted to utilities, and without them I go through terrible withdrawal. At least I’m not living in Texas at the moment or North Dakota.

Susan and I were able to survive by bundling up but it made me fussy and grumpy. I know that’s sounding weak and whiny because folks all over the world live without the environmental control us luckier Earthlings take for granted. We live in an old neighborhood with millions of trees and zillions of squirrels and the power goes out fairly often. Susan and I once went without power in the middle of summer for thirteen days in our previous old neighborhood, and I’ve been without power in the winter two times for three days in this house when Susan was working in Birmingham. So 32 hours wasn’t that much, but it was the coldest, when I was the oldest, and that got to me. Age matters.

I don’t want to do it again. So while I hunkered down in the dark trying to stay warm I fantasized about all the ways we could protect ourselves in the future. My first thought was to move to Florida. Isn’t Florida where old people go to die like the legendary elephant’s graveyard in Tarzan movies? However, Susan nixed that idea. Since we bought her parents house Susan assumes we’ll die here too. I just don’t want it to be by freezing to death – or by overheating in August.

I figure after we get our Covid shots we’ll get someone to check out the gas fireplace. Maybe even see if there’s a superior way to get heat from the living room fireplace. Susan’s parents survived a week closed up in that room with that gas fireplace during the 1994 ice storm power outage. I might also see about adding a gas heater in the master bedroom.

The funny thing is, beside warmth, we missed the internet the next most, even more than hot food. Our phones quickly ran out of juice. We had to recharge them by sitting in the car. So I’m going to buy a Jackery portable power station. A small model claims it can recharge a phone 24 times.

Susan thinks my next idea is going overboard, but I want to research getting a natural gas generator. We have lots of neighbors with gasoline generators. When the power goes off we can hear them all around us. I don’t like their noise, or messing with extension cables, or constantly filling up the tank. A natural gas generator is quiet, turns on as soon as the power fails, and feeds off the house’s natural gas line. I’ve done a bit of research and found a Generac for $4000 with an estimated installation of $2000. But I need to do more research. I’m scared of using natural gas, plus it contributes to global warming, and I need to find out how long such a device will last and what kind of maintenance it needs before committing to the idea.

I also need to research getting a camping stove or gas grill. Susan wishes we’d retrofit the kitchen for gas stove and over. The first night we ordered pizza to have something warm to eat, but once we were snowed in I doubt take-out delivery will be practical. I need to think about the right kind of food to have on hand for when the power goes out. By the way, I put our frozen food in my truck.

Because of previous outages I already own a bunch of battery power LED lanterns, but I need to get more. I want to research all the little gadgets to have that will make surviving power failures better.

When the water line to one of the toilets froze I took several old cat litter jugs and filled them with water. One jug could do one flush. Then I heard in Texas they were telling people to boil their water, so I thought I should also get up a supply of clean drinking water. That was the first thing my friend Mike did when his pipe burst and he had to shut off the water to the house – he drove off in the snow to get bottled water.

I’m sure in the weeks to come I’ll think of more things. Another idea I’ve had is to hire a house inspector, the kind people use when selling and buying a house, to give this place a check over to see how we can retrofit it for reliability, durability, and energy conservation. I need to learn what to do when the power goes off in the winter for a long time, especially to keep the pipes from freezing. I do have a T-wrench to shut off the water, and I could drain the water from the house, but what do I do about the hot water heater? It’s gas powered and keeps running without electricity. We could have taken hot showers if we were willing to shuck off all those layers of clothing.

I feel I need to adapt to adapting. As I’ve aged I’ve become rigid in my ways, and I’ve learned to control the crap out of my life by making everything perfectly comfortable. I’ve spent decades learning how to weed out all the little annoyances, so I’m poorly conditioned for abrupt changes to my habits. That means when things derail I get thrown out of my comfort zone. I believe I adapted fairly well to losing power this time, at least being stoic, but I could have handled it much better. We didn’t do much but play on our phones and slept a lot under lots of covers.

We’re usually unaware of our true selves until we’re forced out of our routines, and then we realize who we are by what we miss. My comfort zone totally depends on controlled temperature, electricity, and the internet. As I laid under blankets dressed in multiple layers of clothes trying to enjoy life at 44 degrees F, I just gave up to inactivity. I need to find ways to stay active and enjoy life without power.

I did do a lot of contemplating. I thought about Louisa May Alcott. I imagined she and her sisters spending long New England winters living in much colder rooms. I bet they found plenty to do to occupy themselves during the day. I wondered if I could adapt to reading physical books and writing with pen and paper in very cold rooms? People in the 19th century kept active in extreme cold and heat. Hell, so do most people around this 21st century world who live with HVACs?

The photo above was taken just before the power returned around 3pm Friday. It was 44 degrees inside and 29 outside. Luckily the power came back before it went down to 1 degree. My two cats were sleeping between my legs, but ran off before they could get photographed. You should have seen us at night lit only by flashlight. At least I didn’t have to go outside to an outhouse.

Here’s our rescuers working on a power pole in our backyard with their truck in my neighbor’s yard. It’s hard to see, but everything is covered with ice. That was last Friday. The power went off again for a few hours on Saturday when a tree branch fell on a powerline around the corner.

Now I understand why my mother would do anything to go stay with my sister in Florida during the wintertime. She was driving down there by herself even in her eighties. Boy, I wish I was living in Florida right now.


15 thoughts on “Cracks in My Comfort Zone”

  1. As always, James, I was reading along, enjoying your stories and your delightful way of telling ’em…until I got to the part when you mentioned a generator, Generac, by name. I stopped reading.
    On Monday 12/28/15, I had one of them there things installed here at the house. Now I’m down here in southwest Virginia and our winters vary in severity as much as did the young ladies in the backseat at a drive-in, back then, a long, long time ago.
    So today, for example, is Thursday 02/18/21. Yeah, we’ve got some ice and freezing rain, mostly just slushy stuff meaning I’m sitting here watching cars slide this way and that ’cause southerners believe in hammer down, dammit. My father-in-law lives, oh, five miles away. His power has been off, then on, then off, then on for the last couple of days. No problem on my little street.
    But that generator has run exactly three times since 2015. First time was, oh, less than half-an-hour. Then we lost power and it ran for about an hour. Then we lost power…during one of those years…and the little thing ran for about 10 hours. I even had neighbors say, “Hey. How in the hell did you have power when nobody else did?” Hehehehe. But they also know, because I have told ’em: Power goes off and you need a place to come, get warm, have something to eat? Hell, just knock on the door.
    By my point is that I love our generator. It is a Generac. Yes, on one hand I sorta kinda say, “Damn! That is a lot of money to spend to feel ‘comfortable’ for just those few hours of ‘inconvenience’.” But at the same time, back to your point? Sorry, but I’m just too damned old to play those games anymore.
    And this, and then I go away. We moved here in ’91. The house has natural gas for heat. We had a plain ol’ fireplace. And after I, well, sorta kind almost burned the house down by shoving anything and everything into it that would burn…you know, cardboard and stuff…I mean, why not burn all that trash, right? So I learned my lesson, had gas logs installed…and ain’t never, ever looked back.
    And since you mentioned it, I gotta have ’em come out this spring and do a “routine maintenance” on Mr. Generator.
    Yes, some of the best money I ever spent.
    Hang in there, James.

      1. It’s been there since 2015 and this spring will be the third time I’ve called ’em. And the first guy, back in ’17, reminded me…of me. He said, paraphrasing of course, “Hey, dumbass. All you gotta do is pop that panel right there, drain the oil and put some new oil in. You can do that!” And I said, “Yep, but nope. I’ll pay y’all to do it ’cause IF something happens, y’all ain’t gonna get to say ‘Well, YOU did it ’cause you didn’t have ‘professionals’ do the work.” And the bill is, oh, less than a hundred bucks. If it was much more than that, yeah, I’d bitch and raise hell. I’d pay it, mind you, but I wouldn’t like it, meaning filed under “money well spent”.
        But that really is it. It is programmed to run for 15 minutes, every Wednesday, at 1300, then it shuts down.
        Oh. just this: On Wednesday, when it cuts on, nothing in the house is affected, meaning that the power must be off for “a few seconds” before the things kicks in and says, “I’ll take over.” So the lights and all that stuff goes off…meaning we have to reset the time on clocks. But that’s it. And the only time that has really mattered, at all, is when I am sitting here, at my computer, and “Damn. I hadn’t saved my work” and those few minutes of writing in my journal weren’t saved. Yes, I’m OCD so now it is write a paragraph or two, click save, then move on.
        But again, I really do highly recommend their generators.

  2. A wood burning slow combustion heater will still be working after the zombie apocalypse when the gas stops flowing. Safe, self sufficient and beautiful – keeps us warm down in Katoomba. BTW, I love reading your essays and I’m so glad your (and our) Trumpian nightmare is over.

  3. Jim, you said:
    “At least I’m not living in Texas at the moment or North Dakota.”

    LOL because I am. In fact, I’m less than 100 miles from the Canadian border in Eastern ND. The heat hasn’t gone off yet this year thank goodness because it got down to -30 which meant -50 with the wind chill. They warned against being bare-skinned for more than 5 minutes. (That means wear your gloves and guard your face!) I didn’t go out in it but my car’s remote starter burned out – (something in the ignition). I like to say it froze to death – lol. It’s all over now and “they” are saying it’ll be 43º next Monday. (Likely story.)

    My electric heating and lights and stove etc. all stayed on – whew!

    1. Becky, you are made of sterner stuff than me. I’m much too wimpy to handle living in North Dakota.

      As a kid, I dreamed of becoming a colonist on Mars. Now that’s even colder. No, Florida is about the only place I want to go anymore.

      1. And today I went into the drug store leaving my bulky coat in the car. I had a light sweater on with slacks. That’s it. It was about 18º. And it’s going to get up to 42º on Monday (that’s what they say). There’s no snow now – it’s on about 3 inches deep. LOL! What a winter.

  4. Well, it got down to -31 here in Lincoln, Nebraska, so it’s disappointing that North Dakota wasn’t any colder than that, Becky. 🙂

    Jim, I don’t normally comment here, since I get your posts in email. But wow, that must have been difficult! It really makes you think, doesn’t it?

    Two or three years ago, it got down to -16 on New Year’s Eve,… and my furnace stopped working. My nearly new furnace! Apparently, these days, they make them with sensors which regularly fail. Well, I suppose that’s a regular source of income for them.

    Luckily, I was able to get a repair guy out here to replace it. But I was struggling to stay warm – even with insulated coveralls and the rest of my extreme winter gear – before he arrived. Being without heat for days or even weeks would be… hard to imagine, really. We are so dependent on this stuff.

    When I was still working, I blacked out the entire city one time, when a storm took out our biggest electrical transmission line (after earlier storms had already taken out our other transmission lines). That was deliberate, because the alternative was burning out the transformer in our last remaining transmission line.

    Through sheer luck, it was only a minor problem that caused out biggest line to trip out, so Lincoln was only blacked out for about five minutes. Most of the city – and none of the news media – even knew that the whole city had been blacked out at once. But the potential was there for most of the city being without electricity for months!

    Well, I don’t know what we would have done. No one in America even makes those big, expensive transformers anymore. They’re all made overseas and need to be ordered far in advance. This was in the spring, as I recall, but still… we really rely on our utilities.

    When I was working, there was a HUGE push from the Republican Party to privatize this stuff. Wholesale electricity prices skyrocketed, but a lot of companies made money from that (not just Enron, either), and that’s what’s important, right? Not the reliability of our electrical grid?

    You don’t make money by keeping prices low, and you don’t make money by building infrastructure for emergencies. You make money by cutting corners everywhere you can and then leaving with your golden parachute when things go bad. For the rest of us, though, that can have real consequences!

    1. I bought The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future by Gretchen Bakke awhile back. I think it’s time to read it. I didn’t know you worked in the utility industry, that’s fascinating. After what happened in Texas I hope the whole country gets concerned and interested in our electrical infrastructure.

      I’m not sure my approach is right. Wouldn’t it be better if we make the whole structure rock-solid than have millions of people trying to build their own energy lifeboats?

      1. “Wouldn’t it be better if we make the whole structure rock-solid than have millions of people trying to build their own energy lifeboats?”

        When I was in grade school, there were always these stacks of civil defense pamphlets at school events – in a grade school! – urging everyone to build a fallout shelter to prepare for thermonuclear war. I used to take those pamphlets home, and I just couldn’t understand why my parents ignored that. Why weren’t they “building their own lifeboat”? 🙂

        Preparing for a possible emergency is one thing. But maintaining our civilization is the only real solution for most of these problems. And, among other things, we need to agitate for more reliable utility networks.

        Of course, that’s going to cost money. And that money will come from our pockets. Spending money on making utilities – electricity, water, gas, internet, etc. – more reliable in extreme weather events or other emergencies is going to make our utility bills go up. That’s just a fact of life.

        And when you add in the right-wing urge to privatize everything,… well, private companies would rather that money go to profiting their shareholders and/or paying extravagant sums to their upper management. Certainly it was my experience in the electric utility industry that private companies generally cared nothing for electric reliability.

        Indeed, deliberately making the system less reliable could pay off for them with increased prices. After all, it’s a lot easier to make a big profit when something is expensive than it is when something is cheap. (10% of a $1,000 is a lot more than 10% of $10! And yes, prices changed that much sometimes, after private marketers got involved.)

        The motivation of government utilities is to keep customers supplied. And they don’t make any more money when prices are high. That’s not necessarily the case with private businesses – especially not with energy marketers who don’t even have retail customers to worry about.

        Anyway, I’m definitely in the camp of improving the structure, Jim. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for emergencies. No matter how “rock-solid” the structure might be, emergencies can happen.

        1. Our country seems to be in a vast experiment of exploring the depths of greed and selfishness. I’d rather pay more in taxes to have a robust society than spending the money trying to make my personal situation robust. I still depend on society for food, water, the internet, clothing, and all manufactured goods. Even if I added a Generac generator and solar panels to my house, I’d go under if the water and gas went off. It’s impossible to be self-sufficient.
          When they designed the internet they designed it to be hardened against war and other kinds of attacks. What we need is hardened grids for power and water.

  5. Like Randy, we have a GENERAC natural gas generator, too. After being without power for 3 days in 2006 after an ice storm knocked down trees and powerlines, we decided to invest in the GENERAC. It goes on automatically once power is interrupted. We’ve experienced those outages about seven times since we got the unit. It’s weird when you’re the only house on the street with lights and everyone one else is in the dark. The heating/cooling company that installed the GENERAC come out once a year to service it. The GENERAC automatically starts once a week and runs for 10 minutes. It ran today despite the 20 degree temperature. Started right up! I recommend it.

  6. Hi James

    Sorry to hear about your problems. We had two weeks of polar vortex up here in Canada but aside from the fact the house, built in the mid 60’s, is poorly insulated we were fine. However our provincial government follows the same strategy as Texas when it comes to the energy grid which is a bit concerning. We have discussed a GENERAC but they are pricey however like you we have come to value security. My other plan is to win the lottery move to the west coast and have a fireplace. My luck it would be just in time for the earthquake and tsunami.

    All the best

  7. I’m your age and for the most part feel the same way you do. I lived in rural upstate New York and winters would always get around to minus 20 every so often. Had a Generac there and just had one installed here in my new home in Florida… hurricanes, you know.
    I think they are great ( it did come in handy a couple times) but quite a bit pricier than they should be. You can do fine with a small to medium size portable generator to keep phones, flashlights and computers charged up, some lights and internet on . You don’t want to run it constantly but put aside a couple 5 gallon containers of gasoline that you rotate all year. If you already have a fireplace get a wood stove fit in it, forget about burning logs in the fireplace itself. All your heat goes up the chimney. You can get the type that you can see the flames so you’ll use it every so often around Christmas anyway. Also a couple facecord of good seasoned wood and keep it covered. You’ll always know when a storm is coming so you can fill your tub for water to flush and put aside drinking water ahead of time.
    The hardest part is convincing yourself to do all this … because a freeze and power outage will probably not happen! Nothing wrong with being prepared.

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