Thinking back to February of 2008, our family was going through some typical life changes with a new job, a new puppy and a new baby on the way. Like any other busy family we were focusing on getting through our day-to-day routine and planning for our upcoming short-term events; we gave little thought to emergency preparedness back then. That all changed with the passage of a strong cold front and the ensuing high winds. Our electrical service, knocked out by the fallen tree of our local TV weather man, wasn’t restored for five days. How did we fare? Poorly! What did we learn? Let’s talk about it….
We have a gas fired furnace as the primary heat source in our home and there is also a masonry fireplace with a flue. The fireplace was intended for wood burning but had been converted to gas logs in the mid-80’s. These weren’t your modern gas logs with an automatic shut-off and a nice blower box. This log set was essentially a perforated gas line with some ceramic logs on a metal grate.
When the power went out and the inside temperature began to drop, we fired up the gas logs. No auto igniter or switch here; you just stuck the match or lighter down in the logs and waited for the glowing poof upon combustion. These gas logs, over the course of the next several days, did little to provide us with warmth even with the room closed off to preserve the “heat”. We would never have been able to cook anything in the fireplace and actually began to get headaches; possibly fumes from the logs or possibly the scented candles used for auxiliary lighting(that topic will be covered in another post!). The temperature throughout our house was about 42 degrees and we were only able to maintain about 55 degrees in the closed off room. Overall, we were vastly unprepared for an extended outage. Things could have been much worse! We were surrounded by other houses which had power, including family who took our then six year old daughter to their house. Restaurants were open and we ate out rather than having to try and prepare food in our home.
This experience without a significant backup heat source was a wake up call for our family!
What have we done since? In July of 2008 we had the gas logs and gas line removed from the fireplace so that it could be used to burn wood. We had the fireplace and flue inspected by a chimney sweep prior to using it since it hadn’t been used for its intended purpose in nearly 30 years. We now keep a sufficient supply of seasoned, split firewood on hand for emergency use. We also enjoy the fireplace, on occasion, as a family gathering spot to play board games and just hang out enjoying the heat that can only be provided by wood. Oh, and the four month old puppy, now seven years old, that spent five days in the cold likes the wood burning fireplace much better too!
Depending on where you live, a backup heat source could be the difference between life and death during an extended power outage in the winter months. The National Center for Health Statistics recently released data on cold weather deaths covered in this article. The effects of cold can be especially dangerous to seniors and we should always check on family members and neighbors during emergencies.
Beware short-sighted planning!
If you don’t have a backup heat source, now is the time to prepare. Do research on the best options available to meet your needs but beware of short-sighted planning! The addition of a gas fired heat source may be OK for a few days, but what about a prolonged outage? How big of a propane tank do you want next to your home and will you be able to get it refilled during an emergency? Even natural gas provided by utility companies is dependent on electricity for distribution. What happens if power is also interrupted at the point of distribution? Develop a budget and try to account for all costs as these projects can get pricey. A friend recently added a wood stove to his basement that ended up costing over $8000 after adding a brick chimney with a steel liner.
Check with your insurer, your locality and your home owners association before purchasing any products or beginning modifications to your home. Modifications made without input or authorization from your insurer could possibly result in a claim not being covered by your policy. It is also important to verify that your added heat source complies with state and local codes. Many, if not most, homeowners associations have covenants regulating exterior modifications as well.
Having a backup heat source can ensure that you and your family will be able to ride out an extended interruption of electrical service in relative comfort. Don’t forget that access to water and shelf stable foods can be equally important for those of us that want to thrive in a crisis, not just survive!