Friday, January 24, 2014

Can't trust the grid

As I sit right now at my desk typing this entry, I am perched tensely on the edge of my seat, constantly expecting the computer to shut down without warning.

You see, in the past two weeks, we have experienced eight power outages. I told you about the one we had over the weekend of the 11th and 12th, but that one actually wasn't too bad because the temperature was so unseasonably warm for January. In 21 hours without heat, the temperature in the house never ended up falling below 62 degrees. During the next two days after that, we had a couple of "planned" power outages as PSE&G worked to fix the parts that were damaged during the fire that caused the first outage. At least, they were planned from PSE&G's point of view; they still didn't give us a chance to plan for them by warning us when they were going to happen. Still, these occurred either late at night or overnight, so they weren't too disruptive; aside from being cut off in the middle of an episode of "Leverage" (our new favorite mind candy show) one night, we didn't suffer any real ill effects. It was an inconvenience, but we figured it was worth it to have the grid back on line and working reliably before the real cold weather hit this week.


On Tuesday night, a major winter storm hit. Brian opted to stay home from work, which turned out to be a good idea, since most of his coworkers who went in reported that it took them several hours to get home—but while he was at his desk trying to work remotely on his laptop, boom, out went all the power again. This time the whole town wasn't affected—in fact, we could see lights on at the apartment complex down the street and at businesses less than a block away—but since the snowstorm made it pretty much impossible to go anywhere, we were just as surely cut off from civilization as if the grid had been knocked out for miles around. We ended up camped out in our kitchen, working on a jigsaw puzzle by the light of a flashlight suspended from the ceiling fan, dining on canned soup, and attempting to keep warm with chemical heat packs as the temperature gradually crept lower and lower. With the outside temperature at 20 degrees and falling, the house lost heat a lot faster than it had during the previous outage; in less than six hours, the temperature in the house fell to 60 degrees. Fortunately, we didn't have to find out just how cold the house would get overnight, since the power came back on at 10pm. We had just enough time to sneak in one episode of "Leverage" before bed.

The next day, the roads looked clear enough to allow Brian to venture in to work. We debated over who should take the cell phone; on the one hand, he would need it if he got stuck in the snow, but on the other hand, I would need it to call him if the power went out again. We ended up leaving it with me, which turned out to be the smart choice, because some time between 10 and 11 in the morning, out it went. Brian fetched me and took me back to work with him, and I completed Tuesday's blog entry on his laptop, then spent the rest of the day hanging out at his office doing crosswords and searching the Web for information about home generators (about which more later). Around 3pm we checked our phone and found it working, so we went home thinking we would finally be able to bake the pizza we'd planned for the night before. Yet no sooner had we walked in the door than wham, out went the power again. Once again, it was just our block that was affected, so we ended up eating at a diner and then hanging out at the Barnes & Noble until the power came back.

By this time, I was starting to feel really paranoid. The constant ons and offs of the grid were making me hesitate to do things that should have been routine. I found myself wondering whether I dared to take a shower, because if the power went out again in the middle of it I'd be left with wet hair in an unheated house. I ended up doing so, but hurrying to dry off and get dressed as fast as possible, expecting at any minute to be plunged into darkness and cold. My siege mentality persisted into Thursday as I hurried to get my last Thrift Week entry written early for fear that the power would fail again. Sure enough, it did, just before 3pm—too late for Brian to come and take me to work with him, so I just bundled up in my warmest clothes and read magazines until the lights came back on at 4pm. Brian was also thinking in the same terms; he came home early in a hurry to bake the pizza that had now been waiting for two days, and fortunately, we just managed to slip it into the window between 4pm and 6:10, when the power went out again. We headed off to Princeton for our dance practice having no idea whether we'd come home to a functioning house or a cold, dark cave.

We are now nearly three days into the siege. As of noon today, the electricity is still on—but I still find myself making constant adjustments to my life in anticipation of an imminent power failure. Operating in crisis mode, I've even found myself going against my usual ecofrugal instincts. I turned the heat up higher in the house (all the way to 70) to build up a reserve of heated air, so that when (I'm no longer even thinking if) the power goes out again, it'll take longer for the temperature to drop into the frigid zone. I also considered washing an extra-small load of laundry, rather than the usual more efficient large load, so that if the washer got be stopped halfway through its cycle, I'd be able to fit the wet clothes on our indoor drying rack. I'm even thinking about going to the store and picking up a box of tissues, which we haven't had in this house for years, because we're all out of clean handkerchiefs and I can't assume that it'll be possible to wash and dry them. (Because of course, all this had to happen at a time when Brian and I are both suffering from nasty colds, on top of everything else.)

All this has got me thinking seriously about the idea of going off the grid, an idea I've never done more than toy idly with in the past. The difference is that before, I always thought of solar panels and wood stoves as things you might install for the sake of living a greener, more sustainable life, and I always concluded that for us, it made more sense to stay on the grid and pay a little extra for power from renewable sources. But now, I'm actually thinking about going off the grid for a completely different reason: because the grid can't be trusted. A portable power generator, which costs only a few hundred dollars, isn't really a viable option; you can't operate one indoors (or inside any structure), yet any outdoor location you keep it in must be completely protected from the elements. Also, we'd need to buy and store fuel for it, either gasoline (which is messy, smelly, and hazardous) or propane (somewhat cleaner, but a lot harder to store in sufficient quantities). A standby generator looks like a more reasonable option, since it could run on our home's own natural gas supply, but we're now talking about a few thousand dollars rather than a few hundred, plus the cost of professional installation. Our biggest concern, though, isn't the money; we're just wondering what happens if we shell out a few grand for this thing and then, during the next big storm, the natural gas supply fails us as well. True, that's never actually happened in any home I've ever lived in, but at this point, we seriously feel like we can't rely on PSE&G for anything.
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