EMERGENCY POWER (Not the COVID-19 Kind) by Chet Sergey, LEPC Chairman


EMERGENCY POWER (Not the COVID-19 Kind) by Chet Sergey, LEPC Chairman

Recent weather events have resulted in extended power outages lasting from a few days to more then a week for many.  Today we are so dependent on electricity for so much that it is a wonder anyone can live without it for more then a few hours! Add to it that everyone has a cell phone that needs charging, computers, internet, even portable phones with a land line need electricity to operate as well as our heating and air conditioning systems, appliances, and for some electric vehicles!  Not everyone can afford solar energy as a back-up either.  Are you prepared to manage without power?  The adage, “FAILURE TO PLAN IS PLANNING TO FAIL”, applies more now then ever.

Most of us can get by for a few days without power no matter what the weather and have done it in the past without major inconvenience.   Five days is the longest I can remember being without electricity at my home in Wolcott.  One winter some areas in Maine were “powerless” for up to 3 months or more due to massive damage by ice storms.  Lately you will hear people complaining that the electric company is not restoring power fast enough in spite of unprecedented, historical storms and widespread major damage to the power distribution systems (poles, wires, transformers, etc.).  The public does not realize recovery is NOT an instantaneous process.  First a damage assessment must be done (which takes time), followed by setting priorities, and preparing the plan for power restoration.  Critical facilities, e.g. hospitals and public safety, get high priority for obvious reasons even if they have back up generators.  Also on the high priority list are main transmission lines that serve large areas of the population.  Then they work down to regional transmission lines, to those serving large sections of the town, then to separate streets and finally to individual homes.  Even if they summon and stage equipment and personnel in advance of a storm, it still takes time for additional help to come from unaffected areas miles and/or days away.  Of course, work cannot begin during the worst of the storm, when high winds exist and/or safe travel is hindered by downed trees, drifting snow, unplowed streets, or icy conditions.  Line worker safety is a very important consideration and takes priority over everything else.

A frequently asked question is “Should I have a generator?”  My answer is “Yes!” if you experience frequent and extended power outages or have special need for electricity for medical or other life support equipment…or simply want to be better prepared and can afford it.  You can’t help but scratch your head and wonder when you hear of a restaurant that had many thousands of dollars in uninsured food losses, when a back-up generator would have cost a fraction as much.  I’ve had a generator for over 50 years and have used it numerous times: summer, fall, winter and spring.  Initially I had a single portable unit and had special hook-ups installed at my home, my parent’s and our children’s.   After one event wiped out power at all of them at once, we got additional generators! By law, all generators must be connected with a “transfer switch” professionally installed by a licensed electrician.  This switch prevents feedback into the power lines and protects utility workers, tree removal crews and your neighbors from electrocution as well as damage to your property when the power is restored.  A generator must NEVER be operated inside the home, garage or basement because of fire and carbon monoxide hazards.  Outside placement must provide protection for the unit and also keep exhaust fumes from entering the home via nearby windows, doors, etc.  While running a generator, having working carbon monoxide detectors in the home is a must.

Portable generators are available for under a $1,000 plus the cost of the transfer switch and will power some lights, boiler/furnace, water pump and refrigerator/freezer on a rotating, intermittent basis.  They are usually gasoline fueled and run many hours on a tank full depending on the tank capacity and electric load.  They are often manual start and are used “as needed” rather then run continuously.    FRESH fuel for them should be stored in proper containers in a SAFE place outside of and away from living quarters.   CAUTION:  Storing large amounts of gasoline in approved plastic or metal containers still presents an extreme fire and explosion hazard.  Contact the Wolcott Fire Marshal for storage guidelines.

The other end of emergency power costs $1,000s more, is fully automatic, will supply the whole  house, and is usually fueled by propane, LP gas, or diesel oil, and will run continuously for 1 to 5 days depending on size of the fuel tank.  Some even have dual fuel capability.  Your budget will determine the size, type and options desired.  This is not a do-it-yourself project:  It requires permits, a qualified electrician and a licensed fuel supplier for the fuel tank and installation.

Whatever you decide, a generator should be sized to your needs, professionally installed with a transfer switch, tested weekly (high end units have timers to do this automatically), have adequate fresh fuel safely stored in approved containers, and have the required annual maintenance performed to keep them ready for an emergency.

Free brochures on Disaster Planning are outside the Town Clerk’s Office, at the Senior Center and soon at the Wolcott library, courtesy of your LEPC .  These articles are a public service of the Wolcott LEPC and are intended for informational purposes only.   The LEPC assumes no liability for the use or distribution of this information.