Thoughts on 7 days without power

Here’s my notes from the past week’s power outage experience:

  • For all the fears and whining, I thought often, even when cold and tired, that this experience was a cakewalk as disasters go: 1.7 million without power for a few days is a trifle of suffering compared to any recent tsunami, hurricane, volcano, genocide or revolution. You can switch power back on. Frustrating yes. Devistating, no. It seemed Seattle lost sight of this: we’re babies. This was no New Orleans or Darfur.
  • First two days were scary: no gas, no wood, no ice, no stores open. It’s unsettling when the magic trucks that bring sustenance stop coming: it’s a smack in the face reminding us how dependent on distant forces modern lives are. By Saturday stores opened (though wood and gas were gone) – Home Depot proved the best source of firewood, as even if out of bundles, you could buy 2x4s.
  • KIRO 710 AM Radio was fantastic – They provided 24 hour coverage for 4 days straight, replacing talk radio with storm reports, live interviews with officials and powerco reps, and call ins with people giving tips and advice on where to find gas, wood, etc. It was an awesome resource, and they provided a great public service: heroes of the experience.
  • The worst of people. KIRO reported every 10 minutes on the 100s of thousands of folks without power, but that didn’t stop angry callers from claiming how they had been abandoned – crisis makes some people very small and selfish: it was depressing to listen to – suffering doesn’t require having someone to blame.
  • On the other hand, we met many generous neighbors who volunteered time to clear the 100ft tree from our driveway with gas chainsaws, and offer wood and gas.
  • My sleep cycle improved. With no electric lights I easily woke at first light, and went to bed earlier than usual. Jill made the connection and it makes sense: all the computer and TVs screens are likely contributors to my periodic insomnia.
  • I did not miss TV or e-mail. We charged cell phones in the car and that was as high tech as I got. Later on I’d try to write in coffee shops, but mostly failed.
  • It took 2 days to work out the daily chores: starting the morning fire, making breakfast, dousing the fire, walking the dogs, negotiating who would be home by 4pm to start the fire up again (so the room would be warm by 7ish). Once we had the system it wasn’t that hard.
  • There is an art to fireplace cooking: it’s harder than camping as there is a shallow roof over the fire, and we didn’t have grills for the fireplace. The secret is you can’t warm the room and cook: if you cook, you want even temp, if you want heat, you want big flames (I know – duh – but it took me 2 days to sort it out). We tried charcoal in the grill and it worked fine, but log ambers worked just as well. Like camping, lots of soups, chilis, and tin foil wrapped knishes made up many meals.
  • Food was easier in the cold – first few nights were ~30 degrees, so we could keep food from the fridge on the deck. But it warmed up later and we had to trash much of the food. We tried to make ice one night (for the fridge & freezer), leaving out small water filled containers, but it didn’t quite get cold enough.


  1. A pre-storm trip to the store would have done wonders. Refreshing batteries, wood, toping off gas tanks, etc. would have made this much less stressful.
  2. Neighbors matter. Oddly we met more neighbors through this experience than in 7 years of living in this neighborhood (little else forces seattle-ites out of their homes). Pooling resources and skills makes life much easier in a near crisis (duh, but I’d forgotten).
  3. Gadgets are over-rated. I knew this already but had it proven – all I needed was an AM radio, fire and some books and I was happy. With the extra work I needed less entertainment, not more, and was happy just to sit and listen or read.
  4. I have no idea how power works. I spent more time staring at the various electronic bits hanging destroyed from trees and wondered what they all did. What does a transformer do exactly, and why are power lines above ground, not below? I have no clue. I’m trying to find a book on power grids and how they work, suggestions welcome.

16 Responses to “Thoughts on 7 days without power”

  1. Dan Robbins

    Wow – nice write-up. From the pictures, I bet your dogs thought it was great you were sleeping with them…

  2. Scott (admin)

    Yup – the dogs loved this: what better than the pack living and sleeping together in one den like room? I suspect they’re planning ways to knock out our power in the future.

  3. James Bullock

    A Mr. Science Moment – Transformers 101, From Memory, with Hand-Waving (you sort of asked.)

    Transformers “work” based on the observation that a changing e/m (electro/magnetic) field induces a current in a conductor. I’m talking bulk material properties, and Sophomore college physics here with some Mr. Science type analogizing thrown in. There are subtleties. (BTW, add the fact that with an e/m field you can get force, and force through a distance = work = energy and you get how a generator or motor works. Electricity in coils makes a field makes force on another field. Let something get pushed by that force, and you convert electrical current to physical motion. Cool.)

    You get voltage when a conductor “cuts” an e/m field – the conductor moves through the field or the field changes around the conductor. Make coils of wire and you get lots of “cuts” with the induced voltage “stacking” from one wrap to the next. So, when you put two coils of wire in the same e/m field, the amount of voltage from each depends on the number of turns of wire in each coil. The big trick with transformers is that you push electricity “into” one coil that shares an e/m field with another coil with a different number of turns. When you push electricity – in the form of a varying current which gives you a moving e/m field – into one coil, you *get* a field that changes, which *makes* electricity (voltage) in the other coil, proportional (with hand-waving) to the ratio of turns in the two coils.


    – e/m fields decay in strength with distance, which is why you put the two coils as close as you can, say in the big pot. The pot is very heavy because keeping the coils of wire close together is a good thing, which means lots of heavy wire close together in the pot.

    – You are making a powerful, varying e/m field. Maybe you don’t want that spewing all over the place. So the big-ole pot has a second “shielding” property. (Hand-wave. Hand-wave.) The shielding reduces, but doesn’t prevent the field that is exposed outside of the pot.

    – There’s a bunch of magic about permeability of the space around the coils, and resistance to ionization and electrostatic discharge. Make a big field and lots of things are happy to suck up the energy, including by making sparks and ions. Actually moving electricity through the coils also makes heat which you want to get rid of. So, transformers tend to be filled with interesting stuff – stuff that makes naive environmentalists crazy. That’s fair. The stuff is pretty evil. BUT, there aren’t a lot of materials with these interesting properties. So, have the nasty stuff around, or suck up more power, “lost” in the transformer process. Pick the environmental impact of your choice. Or give up the blow-dryer.

    – Why have a transformer amounts to whhy change voltages at all? At least two reasons. Moving current through a wire loses energy. Moving voltage does not. (Hand-wave. Hand-wave. This is also why we’re so interested in superconductors – moving current through them doesn’t lose energy. More hand-waving.) So, at an approximation, same amount of energy travels better with big voltages and small currents. So, the grid power lines run at big voltages. Second reason is you don’t want big voltages in your house – it’s hard to handle. (See above about electrostatic discharge and ionization, meaning sparks that make fires, and interesting air, respectively. You can smell ozone, more or less. One easy way to make ozone is electrostatic fields in the air.)

    As for the grid thing, that’s another whole digression, starting with the problem that electricity isn’t actually like water in the pipe. It’s a field. (For this application, anyway, it acts like one, mostly. Hand-wave. Hand-wave.) So, things happen pretty fast.

    In software analogies, it is better to think of the bits of the power grid as dynamic coupled components with effectively instantaneous response times vs. thinking in terms of some kind of materials flow. The good news is that electrical grids conform to relatively clean models, compared to other dynamic systems we depend on – nuke plants, refineries & pill factories that make Viagra, flow & control in a jet engine, water movement in a watershed or aquifers as examples.

    What I find remarkable about all this is how we can package and propagate all the subtle knowledge and analysis of the physics of this so it can be handled by guys on ladders wearing thick insulating gloves. Also remarkable is making available the skills and focus to work with wires under tension, big horking chunks of transformer and flailing trees to apply to something like a designed electrical grid. Add in the logistics of creating, powering, and maintaining the grid, and there are some amazingly talented people in several domains working at an incredible peak of performance to make this work at all.

    I try to use electricity, indeed all the products of complex and delicate systems, with respect for the improbability of the systems that produced the products.

  4. Scott (admin)

    Holy shit Jim – Who knew you doubled as a management guru and Mr. Science? :)

  5. Kareem

    When an electric current passes through a wire, the value of the current decreases since the wire draws energy from the current, it has very small internal resistance and dissipate the energy in the form of heat. That’s basically what happens when you short circuit a battery, the current becomes extremely large, and the wire heats up until it melts (Voltage=Resistance*Current. Since V and R are constant in case of short circuit, and since R is very very small, ‘I’ has to be very big so that the equation would hold).

    At higher voltages though, the power loss from the resistance of the wire decreases dramatically. This lead to highering the voltage before transmition through transformers, and then transforming them back again to lower voltage before reaching your house through other transformers.

    Why do countries put the wires above ground, I’m not really sure but I’m guess it’s way much cheaper, and easier to fix should any problem happen.

  6. Allen Eskelin

    I can appreciate your post. I live in Snoqualmie and was out of power for 5 days. We were lucky to have a gas fireplace so we were able to keep warm. I agree with your comment about not missing the electronics that much. My wife and I just read books together and seperately most of the time and it was a nice change of pace.

    Are you planning to get a generator after this experience? I’m now thinking it might be a good idea as we get more wind in the mountains and will typically get lower priority over the more populated areas. I figure a small generator with enough power to keep the refrigerator and furnace blower going would be worth the investment (I could have bought one with the money lost from throwing all our refrigerated food out and then repurchasing it again).

    Anyway, congrats on getting your power back.

  7. Zacharelli

    Nice descriptions. I agree that gadgets are overrated, although it’s funny to hear that viewpoint coming from an ex-Microsoft manager.

  8. Rob Harrap

    Hi Scott:

    Some comments.

    I made it through the northeast ice storm and the power failure a couple of years ago. But I’ve been a geologist on and off for years and have all the gear sitting around so…

    Re: infrastructure. Get a copy of Infrastructure by Brian Hayes. Highly recommended.

    Re: preparedness. Absolutely agree that having a checklist / batteries etc. is a good thing. One thing to do is break your ‘preparedness’ box into two bits, as physical boxes, with the checklist pasted on the front in large font printout. The one box is stuff that doesn’t time out. The second is stuff that does. If you, for example, need a battery, you put the new one in the box and use one of the ones from the box… that way you don’t find your stuff has all timed out when disaster strikes! Same applies for canned food, etc.

    If you get a generator (I did) be warned that unless you use them regularly they gum up and won’t start. Stabilizer compounds that supposedly let them sit longer don’t let them sit for a year at a time without use, so…

    If you live in a house, always have a piece of plywood larger than your largest window (or pieces) around, because it isn’t uncommon to lose a window during the big storm that causes the urban grid to fail…

    Anyway, welcome to the urban survivors :

  9. Sherri

    When I worked nights, I noticed most patients kept their TVs on all night. I also noticed that some new parents, especially those that already had a few kids, would sleep while their newborn cried (their TVs would usually be on). So I guess having constant sound while sleeping desensitizes people to ‘wake-up sounds’, and also interferes with their regular sleep patterns.

    As far as underground power, I was knew a woman from Florida during the 2004 hurricanes. She explained that she lived in a small development that had put their power lines underground. They did lose power with a few storms, but only for hours instead of days/weeks. I wonder what the arguments would be against new developments putting power underground? There must be some, otherwise I’d think more would do it to protect against future weather-related outtages.

  10. Rick Eames

    I live up near Sahalee and we were out for 3 days, and our power is underground, it’s just that the lines leading up to the big tube that brings us our power all happen to be above ground and right next to a BIG bank of trees. That area was nuked by the wind, trees were down everywhere — I felt bad for the folks on that street.

    We had 13 people living in our house at one point since my sister did not have gas heat and ran out of warmth for her kids, and my sister-in-law had flown in on Friday night for Christmas. Good Times.

    Glad you guys weathered it okay.

    I will say this: I found it remarkable that we made it through the 1989 quake and got our power back faster than a stupid wind storm.

  11. Evan Yares

    Amazing how people can describe things in such detail, and still not get the message across.

    OK — here’s my try. This is a simplification.

    Electrical power (measured in watts) is the product of current (measured in amps) times voltage (measured in volts). Or:

    Watts = Amps X Volts

    Amps measure of the number of electrons (remember, electricity is carried by electrons) used per second. It is analogous, in hydraulics, to the flow rate in a pipe (e.g. gallons per second)

    Volts measure the electrical potential, which is analogous, in hydraulics, to pressure (e.g. pounds per square inch.)

    Watts measure how much electrical energy is being used per unit of time. You’ll notice that the electric company bills you for the total number of kilowatt hours (1000 watts used for 1 hour) you use.

    A transformer is a device which converts voltages either higher or lower, while maintaining the same power. For example, a transformer with a ratio of 100:1 could convert 12,000 volt electricity down to 120 volts — which happens to be the typical (nominal) voltage used in houses.

    Now, it happens that electrical wires of any particular size can only handle so much current before they overheat. If you get a wire that’s got twice the cross-sectional area, it can handle twice the current. If you want to see what happens when you put a lot of current through a really skinny wire, then just take a look at an incandescent lightbulb filament.

    Let’s say that, when you’re using all the gadgets in your house, they’re consuming 12,000 watts of electricity. At 120 volts, that would be 100 amps. If you look at the wires coming into your house, you’ll notice that they’re pretty thick — that’s to be able to handle all that current without overheating. But, what about the electrical wires on the poles — the ones that have to deliver electricity for maybe 100 houses? You’ll notice that they’re not 100 times heavier than the wires that come into your house. That’s because they’re run at a much higher voltage, then run through a transformer, to lower the voltage to the 120 volts used in your house.

    If a given size wire can handle 100 amps of current at 120 volts, it can just as easily handle 100 amps of current at, for example, 12,000 volts. The difference is that 100 amps at 120 volts is 12,000 watts, while 100 amps at 12,000 volts is 1,200,000 watts!

    You might wonder why not just use higher voltage all the way from the poles, into your house? There are two reasons. It happens that the insulation that’s used on electrical wires, for any particular thickness, can only handle so much voltage without danger of failing. (If you want to see what happens when you put a too much voltage through an insulator, just put on a neoprene wetsuit, and stand on the top of your house in a lightning storm.) Also, other electrical parts, such as switches, tend to be limited in how much voltage they can handle. Here’s an example of what happens when you open a switch in a very high voltage circuit.

    The second reason why much higher voltages are not used inside houses is that they have a tendency to be more dangerous to living things. You touch a 120 volt circuit, and (if you’re lucky) it’ll just feel like you got hit by Mike Tyson. You touch a 480 volt circuit, and (if you’re lucky) you might live to talk about it.

    Now — as for why the wires outside are on poles, instead of underground: it’s because it’s cheaper. With the wires on poles, they don’t need insulation, since air acts as an insulator. If the wires were underground, they’d need to use much more expensive insulated wire. And, beyond this, back in the good old days, they simply didn’t have wire insulation that was good enough to be buried. So wires got strung on poles

  12. lilie

    Nice for a seven day experience. What would you do for a three and a half years with no power, water, tv, radio, access to medical care etc…

    Maybe you should go to Iraq and tell the citizens how fabulous you are

  13. Daniel Walker

    I’m going to second the recommendation to check out Brian Hayes’ book Infrastructure.

    Lots of good info in here, on the power grid as well as all of the other systems that hum away 24/7, completely taken for granted. It’s an extremely revealing look at our way of life, without ever beating you over the head with it.

  14. hey

    Above vs below ground: installation costs, repair costs, and repair times are the major factors.

    The Seattle area is not your ideal trenching environment, though it’s not a big deal to bury cables in a new development that’s putting in roads, sewers, etc. But for any significant system, the speed and cost of burying lines is dramatically higher than for stringing them up. Strung wire can also support many things on its poles (phone, cable, etc) at no additional cost, while they require separate conduits when buried (or very large conduit).

    Repairing a broken strung wire is cheap. The break is obvious, it can be fixed by 2 guys and a truck, the dangers are easily controllable. There are many more modes of failure for a buried cable, it’s a more hazardous environment (lots of nasty insulating fluids needed to carry away the heat that is trapped with buried wires), and you need many different types of tools (stopping a coolant fire, stopping a flood, or fixing a break). Talk to someone who has ever had a blocked sewer. It’s a hilarious endeavour as they try to FIND the sewer (is it where you think it is? surveys get lossed, destroyed, or are simply wrong), and then they have to figure out where the problem is. After that, they have to fix all the “test holes”.

    Speed: related to cheap, but again. Identify problem, fix problem. One failure mode vs 5+ (flood, vermin, fire, trenching cut, earthquake…). Above ground you have to splice and rehang wire, maybe need to put up a new pole. Doesn’t matter what happened, the only variables are the feet of new wire and number of replacement poles. Other people fix the causes of the problem, then the power company guys come in. Buried cables, it’s all the power company (need special training to deal with problems + high voltage).

    Australia buries its long haul transmission lines. They have fewer trees, lots of desert, so made the tradeoffs. Big problem recently was a raging underground fire in the coolant of the power lines. Long term problem and very hard to fix.

    Overall it’s a strong and brittle system with single points of failure vs a weaker, resilient system without single points of failure. The Canadian Ice-Storm of 98 is a great example. It took down huge swaths of power lines, including large numbers of high voltage towers, but rebuilding was quick as you can flood the zone with trucks and crews, bringing power back up slowly across the mesh. Buried cables gives huge problems affecting large numbers of people that can’t be fixed by throwing more crews at the problem, since there’ll only be one small hole. Everyone stays down until the problem is fixed.


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