Back to Normal?

by James Wallace Harris, 2/7/22

Every time we live through an extended power outage I learn something new about myself. Our power is back on. Our electricity was restored on the fourth day after the ice storm. There are still over 61,000 people without power in Memphis on the fifth day. I feel very bad for those people because I know their misery. I know some of their thoughts and anxieties, their inner pleas, and prayers for utility restoration.

We are back to normal, but this time I’m questioning my normalcy.

We lose electricity once a year or more, sometimes for 2-3 days. Last year I wrote “Cracks in My Comfort Zone” about the 2021 ice storm. I wrote “Thrown Off the Grid Kicking and Streaming” in 2017. In 2011 I wrote “Blogging by Candlelight and Paper” and in 2008, wrote “Living Like Jane Austen.” There were many outages in between those years, but not long ones. Sometimes it’s in the heat of summer, like Hurricane Elvis, when we went 13 days without power. But more often, it’s in winter, after an ice storm, or in the spring or fall from weather fronts colliding.

Each time I learn something philosophical while living without electricity. This ice storm wasn’t as bad because we never approached zero degrees like last year. The worst was 17 degrees. In both situations, my biggest fear was bursting pipes. This year my friend Leigh Ann had a supply shelf, a color laser printer, and her studio floor ruined by two burst pipes. Last year Mike and Betsy had a flooded bathroom from one burst pipe. Laurie told me about a neighbor that once had a tree fall on her house and do $200,000 worth of damage. But then I think about those people in Kentucky hit by a tornado. We’re all lucky.

After last year’s ice storm, I made several preparations. I had the gas fireplace I was too afraid to use last year cleaned and checked for safety. I had the pipes in my crawlspace insulated. I bought a Jackery to recharge the cell phones. That was a tremendous purchase. As were two battery-powered LED lanterns Susan and I carried with us at all times. I also had our trees thinned of dead branches, but it wasn’t enough. During the ice storm, we kept hearing the crack and crash of falling limbs. It felt like it was raining limbs on our roof. One huge limb came down in front of our house and our neighbor called and said we should rush to the casinos with that luck.

Being without heat and hot food is miserable, but what we suffered mostly from was boredom. That’s a pitiful problem of privilege that I hate to admit. The only time I’m bored is in a power outage. Ditto for Susan. That shows just how pathetically addicted we are to our TVs and computers. These power outages reveal our dependency on screens. I know that’s not good, but I don’t know if I’m going to change either.

We hunkered down and endured. While some of our friends got out and still did fun things. But those friends aren’t as addicted to screens as we are. This year I tried to get up and do more things around the house, like wash dishes by hand, clean out closets, fold clothes, even vacuumed with my battery vacuum. One day I went out and filled our tires with the proper amount of air pressure. That made this outage much better than last year.

However, one thing that made last year very miserable was my prostate problems. This year I had two temporary crowns the cold annoyed but that wasn’t so bad. Obviously, health and vitality are a factor in enduring power outages. It must be torture for people with acute and chronic health problems to go without power.

Last year our phones ran down quickly. We charged them a tiny bit in the car, but it wasn’t a practical solution. This year, we charged both phones with the Jackery several times, and the Jackery still had enough juice left for several more charging. Also, we have new iPhones with 5G and we were able to play Google TV on them – that lessened our boredom. I also listened to audiobooks and read using the Kindle app on my iPhone.

The small iPhone screens gave us most of what our big TV and computer screens give us in our normal lives. That was interesting. I’m thinking an iPad with a keyboard could do everything we wanted if it had broadband access. For next year, I want to check into getting a broadband hotspot that would work with our existing tablets and Susan’s laptop.

I often read fiction and nonfiction about life in the 19th century. Those people had to live with the cold all the time and didn’t have electricity. In adapting to future power outages I need to plan for ways to follow our normal routines and be just as active.

Susan and I wore lots of layers and snuggled under three Afghans each in our recliners. That essentially solved the cold problem. The gas fireplace helped some too, but not as much as I had hoped. The temperature in the house was 50 degrees. It was 44 degrees last year and falling. It was 57 degrees in the living room near the fireplace. That made a difference. Three days living at 50 degrees wasn’t horrible, but 44 degrees was just miserable last year. Overall, we handled the cold well. I have a few tweaks to try for next year. I’m assuming that bad weather will become more common.

We were better prepared for food this year. I had bagels and cream cheese, cheese sandwiches, and protein bars. Susan had tuna fish and peanut butter and jelly. We ordered pizza one night and got Burger King one lunch. I’m a vegetarian, so I had their Beyond Burger. It was good but cold. I heated it up on the gas fireplace.

Next year I know to get a healthier supply of food that can be eaten cold. I’ll investigate camping food. Also, if I know a storm is coming I should wash all the dirty clothes and dishes ahead of time. Slowly we’re getting better at adapting to short periods of living without power.

Susan’s folks went ten days without power in this house after the 1994 ice storm. I was afraid we might have to go that long again. Some people in Shelby county might have to go that long now. Being prepared for 1-2 weeks is important.

Susan wants to get a gas stove and maybe a gas oven. Eating hot food would have helped, especially for a longer outage. I could have heated up soup on the gas fireplace but just didn’t. If the outage had lasted longer I would have.

I want to buy a generator. Last year I pondered getting a generator but decided I didn’t want to mess with a portable gasoline generator and thought a permanent fall-over natural gas generator was too expensive for outages that only happen a couple times a decade. Now that it’s two years running I’m rethinking that.

The main lesson I learned this time is I need to become more active in my retirement life and less dependent on screens. The key is to be prepared for outages, but try and live as normal as possible while the electricity is gone. We tend to just sit and wait for the power to come back, and that’s not good.

I need to work on a new normal.


8 thoughts on “Back to Normal?”

  1. That’s horrible, but I’m glad you have your power back.

    If I go without power here for half a day, I don’t know what to do with myself. Just about everything I do requires power – reading, writing, TV/movies, refrigeration/cooking (although even without power I can use the BBQ grill during the day). I like to hike, but it’s usually not the best conditions when the power’s out. I’m also fortunate that I can drive somewhere else if need be to wait out the outtage. No freezing blizzards or ice storms here in Southern California. It’s more the fires and earthquakes we have to worry about, so I’ve got go-bags always packed and a list of things to get quickly in case of an emergency. It’s not too bad, but we still complain, of course. I mean, who wants to go to bed when it gets dark. 🙂

    1. I have a gas-fired furnace but it needs electricity for the blowers. I saw your email about the inverter, but it didn’t look big enough to last for days. I’m thinking of getting a natural gas generator that cuts in automatically. However, they’re expensive, especially one powerful enough to run a whole house. I’ve wondered about getting a smaller one and a large battery system. That way the battery could cover short outages, and then the generator kicks in to recharge the battery. Sort of like an electric car with a small gas engine.

  2. I think this reply might have been lost in a login snafu, so apologies if this is a duplicate:

    The inverter is powered by your car battery so it will last as long as you have fuel in your tank, and you don’t have to have it running twenty-four hours a day, just long enough to heat the house, microwave a meal, and charge your phones, etc. You’ll ideally fit an isolation switch and patch cable to your switchboard (or add a socket and isolation switch to the power spur of the gas boiler if you only want heat—I’d do the first). If you need to have the inverter running overnight, you can get a standalone 12V deep cycle leisure battery, and then recharge that during the day when the car is running. The inverter will pretty much do what your Jackery does, and more cheaply. Otherwise I’d suggest buying a decent dual fuel generator (mine is a compact machine, an battery start Champion 3500 Watt LPG Dual Fuel Inverter Generator) and a tank of propane (no messing about with petrol and draining it after use, etc., and it lasts much longer than a tank of fuel). An automatic generator is overkill and the cost and hassle will just put you off off doing anything at all; batteries don’t last long and also cost a fortune. I’ve also got a butane gas heater (and a carbon monoxide detector), which is more than capable of heating the downstairs of my house (your gas fire sounds useless, and I suspect most of the heat is going up the chimney), and a two ring portable camping stove for cooking (both of these are backup for the backup—and as I suspect your mains gas will stop being pumped at some point in the power cut, you might want to think about these too). Given the number of power cuts you have I thought you would be a lot better set up than you are—your current situation is what I would have called “practice bleeding” when I was in the military. I hope you have a more comfortable experience during the next one (when, like me, you will be older and even more decrepit than you are now). PS I’d buy a few 25 litre water containers as well—our water went off a day and a half into our power cut, something that I wasn’t expecting. I wonder what will catch me out next time around.

    Sent from my iPad


    1. Paul, you are much more experienced at this. I like the idea of a dual fuel generator. I’ll check into it. I need to also check into the inverter. I didn’t know they worked like that. It sounds like you’ve worked to develop several hybrid solutions.

      1. I think the key item here is the isolation (generator/off/grid) switch for your switchboard and a connection cable.* Without that you can’t power your gas heating system (and will remain in the cold, only with bigger screens to look at).
        * You may, depending on local regulations and the type of generator you have, need to have a conversation with your electrician about the generator’s floating neutral (I think, if I have this right, that unless you connect the earth wire to neutral in the connecting cable then the RCB won’t work if you have a fault as the house neutral circuit won’t be referenced to ground).

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