Feb 2021 Winter Storm AAR

Paul Martin has already posted his winter storm AAR. Here’s another one about prepping for under $200, and one more from Lawrence on “cheap prepping”.

Dealing with multiple locations

One of the big challenges we faced was having two locations to winterize and worry about – doubly complicated when they are 50 miles apart (our house in Bryan and the A-Zone property in Lincoln.

Both properties have a bunch of smart home products: cameras and lights, TempStick temperature sensors on fridges and freezers, thermostats and smoke alarms, and a sprinkler system. We also have two weather stations that feed data to WeatherUnderground.com.

When we have power and internet service, these give us monitoring and control of important building infrastructure. Overall, all of these systems worked very well — particularly at the A-Zone property, because Bluebonnet power and Zochnet internet outages were typically of short durations (a few hours) as opposed to the long outages we experienced in Bryan. The AT&T cell phone network stayed up even when power went off in Bryan, giving us connectivity back to the remote sensors.

During the first wave of the storm, we learned that the heat pump on the house on the A-Zone property froze up. I ended up texting with our AC guy, who talked me through rewiring and configuring the Nest thermostat out there to switch on the electric heat strips and shut off the exterior heat pump. We haven’t seen our electric bill yet, but even with the thermostat set to 63, the electric heat was running at least 50% of the time for more than a week. We learned that the Nest thermostat we have isn’t “smart” enough to switch to the emergency heat. We were able to figure out that the heat pump had failed when the temperature inside the house kept dropping and the heater kept running, so the remote sensing did provide essential information.

Similarly, the exterior rain/freeze sensor worked to stop the sprinkler system from running (and we manually stopped the sprinklers remotely just to make sure no sensor error would cause them to run.)

Deciding where to ride out the storm

As the forecast worsened we had to make a decision as to where we were going to ride out the storm. At the A-Zone we had a generator and a wood burning fireplace with plenty of wood, but poor cell service (regardless of weather), with gas and food vendors 15+ minutes away. In Bryan, we had natural gas appliances (including a gas fireplace), and are within walking distance of a Walmart and multiple gas stations. We had food and bottled water at both locations.

We mistakenly assumed that utilities would be more reliable in the larger urban area. (This turned out to be wrong, as we had a 19 hour and a later 8 hour power outage in Bryan.)

Things that worked well

In my vehicle I always have a Streamlight Siege lantern, a Goal Zero solar panel and an AA battery power box that could be recharged by solar panel or USB, and could be used to charge devices connected to it via USB. During the period we went without power, I was able to use the solar panel to recharge AA batteries. The Panasonic Eneloop Pro AA batteries that I had been carrying around in my car for over a year had held their charge: other brands of rechargeable AA batteries did not, and the Goal Zero-branded AA batteries drained fastest. I will be buying more Eneloop Pro AA’s. It would have been useful to have more of them.

Natural gas appliances allowed us to cook and provided some warmth during the power outage. When power returned after the first 19 hour outage, we charged up every rechargeable thing we had, particularly all the little USB power packs and flashlights.

On the Saturday before the storm hit we went to the A-Zone and wrapped and insulated every pipe we could find. I tracked down some low-toxicity antifreeze and we poured that into the PVC water pipes in the barn to try to protect them against bursting and freezing (this worked). On Tuesday after the first big cold snap and snow and ice, we made an emergency run from Bryan to the A-Zone to check on everything. It took 90 minutes vs. the usual 60, due to road conditions and slower speeds but we were glad we made the run as it gave us peace of mind that the winterizing we had done was working (and weather conditions got worse preventing us from getting out there for another 5 days).

The batteries in the UPS’s attached to our computers were additional power storage that were used to charge USB devices and laptops. (UPS makers need to provide an option to run the UPS without the alarm sounding. Neither of ours had that option.)

The TempStick freezer/fridge sensors are expensive, so we don’t have them on the patio fridges that are only used for sodas and beer, or on the small freezers on the kitchen fridges at either location. We did have Accurite wireless sensors on those, giving local alarms if the temperatures inside the fridge or freezer got out of bounds. They allowed us to locally monitor temps without opening the door. Having those sensors let us know when we needed to relocate frozen or refrigerated items outside (into the ice and snow) to keep them from spoiling.

The only food we lost was some frozen meals in the freezer of the patio fridge at the A-Zone house. We unplugged the patio fridges at both locations out of concern that the old fridges would fail trying to keep the fridge area heated to a non-freezing temp, and expected that the sodas inside them might freeze. As it turned out, the patio location and insulated cabinets kept the sodas from freezing, and we did not have to deal with frozen/exploded soda cans.

Improvements to make

Things we are going to do to be better prepared for future power outages:

Generators at both locations. Propane heaters (we had propane at both locations but no heater to connect to the bottles). Look at replacing/modifying the gas fireplace in the Bryan house to something capable of producing heat. We needed heat far more than a decorative fire.

NOTE – some decorative fireplaces may not be built to withstand the kind of heat a useful gas heater or wood fire might produce. Inspect your fireplace area or have a professional inspect it before you make that sort of change.

Learn more about how the plumbing is run in both locations, particularly pipes that run into the attics that may need additional insulation.

Find the main power connections to the AC/heat units in the attics and put in extension cords long enough to get from the attic down to a generator. We had gas heat in Bryan, and if we had been able to run the attic unit blower from a generator, we might have been able to heat the house during the outage.

The next most likely crisis will be summer power outages. Making sure we have generators at both locations capable of powering the freezers, and maybe even a small AC unit capable of cooling a room, will go on the spring to-do list.

More observations

A few more observations from KR Training staff and alumni:

A lot of people discovered (the hard way) that heat pump systems don’t operate well in temperatures below freezing. Before the storm hit, electric and propane heaters disappeared from store shelves. We loaned an electric heater to a friend with a retail store in College Station. When he asked for the loan he said “there are no heating devices in stock anywhere within 100 miles of here”. I found the same situation with external hose covers. Our dogs decided that the styrofoam ones they could access in the backyard were fun dog toys for shredding, so we ended up using old T-shirts and tie wraps to protect the hose connections.

After the storm had passed, demand for plumbing parts soared. One KR staffer described the plumbing aisle as “looking like a tornado had hit it. Parts scattered all over the floor, boxes ripped open.” The most popular sizes of fittings were the first to go. One staffer drove 50 miles out to the A-Zone to get one of the small propane cans we use for gassing up Airsoft guns, so he could use it as a torch to work on copper fittings that had burst in his garage.

One lesson here: part of prepping is to have a network of other prepared people, in case maybe they have something you need and are willing to share. That includes your geographic neighbors.

Early during the storm, one of the A-Zone neighbors posted on Facebook that a stray dog had showed up at their property. They took it in, gave it shelter and food and water but didn’t want to keep it forever. Meanwhile, another neighbor posted on Nextdoor about a dog that had been lost within a few miles of use. Penny saw both posts, wondered if the stray dog and the lost dog were the same. We contacted the neighbor with the dog, pointed her at the Nextdoor posting…and dog and owner were reunited before the storm made things too dangerous to be driving.

Staff AARs

A few days ago I asked all 12 of the KR Training staff to send me their lessons learned. The lists below are the highlights from their responses.

Items we needed:

  • Lifestraw
  • Flashlights, batteries, glow sticks, head lamps
  • Canned or other storable food
  • Pet food
  • Water valve wrench
  • GMRS radios

Things we did right:

  • Pre-staged equipment
  • Having a mix of gas and electric appliances
  • Having fuel (gas, propane) on hand
  • Topped off vehicles early

Things we would do different next time

  • Shut off water sooner and flush the lines
  • Fill up bathtubs and other available containers
  • More firewood pre split
  • Tow rope in vehicle
  • Inspect trees – look for branches that might ice over and fall causing damage
  • Have a better plan for “things to do” when stuck in the house sitting around with no power and no heat. (Cards, games, books, crafts, dry fire drills, etc.)
  • Have a propane fired high BTU turkey fryer or lobster boiler for heating water
  • Have an assortment of copper and PVC fittings & soldering torch
  • More fire extinguishers
  • Have a better quality camping toilet
  • Know where water cutoff is and clear access to it
  • Indoor-safe propane fueled camping stove

Make a To-Do and To-Buy List and Follow through

The supply chain for many of the “wish we had” items listed above is strained right now. The best plan is to make the to-do and to-buy lists and follow up on them, even if that means ordering and waiting weeks for items to come in. As many people learned in the week before the storm, expecting big box retailers and shipping services to be able to supply everyone in the days before a major crisis is unrealistic. The challenge now is not to let the preparedness tasks get forgotten post-crisis.