Electronic Design

Surviving The Hurricanes: Trials Of Life Without Power

As I write this, our technical editor Bob Milne is evacuating from his home in Edgewater, Fla., racing ahead of Hurricane Frances. We hope that Bob and all of his fellow Floridians got out on time, in front of Frances' fury. But evading the storm is just the

first round of hardships for our friends in Florida. As we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley last month (Bob didn't evacuate during that first storm in this double-whammy), one of the biggest challenges these disasters present is life without electricity. For some residents, power won't be restored for several weeks.

Many of the 29 deaths in the first hurricane were related to the prolonged power outage. The lack of air conditioning obviously creates serious health hazards in the late-summer Florida heat, particularly for older Floridians. But there are other hazards too, like traffic accidents resulting from downed traffic signals and illness from food contaminated by a lack of refrigeration.

Beyond these very real dangers, there's the inconvenience of trying to live and work without electronics! Bob had to get creative in his power management to file his work to Electronic Design on time. (Bob is an EE and technical editor working behind the scenes, editing Design Ideas and Bob Pease's column, among other duties.) I asked Bob about life without electricity during the first storm, and here's his first-hand report.

"This has to be a first: To scan the art for the Design Ideas, I had to power the scanner and my laptop from an inverter connected to the alternator on my lawn tractor! I had a small 145-W inverter that was meant to plug into the 12-V cigarette lighter socket on the car and put out 115 V ac that I could plug my laptop into. But my Jeep was low on gas and there was no gas to be found, so I didn't want to take a chance on running my Jeep battery down if I left the engine off.

"So, I found a female cigarette lighter socket with large alligator clips on it. I clipped that across the lawn tractor's battery, plugged the inverter into it, and ran a long extension cord from the inverter into the house. Then I started up the lawn tractor so I wouldn't run its battery down.

"That arrangement worked, but I wouldn't do it again. Even though I ran the lawn tractor in the garage with the door open, I didn't realize how much carbon monoxide was leaking into the house. Not good! I couldn't leave the tractor outside because we were getting a lot of heavy rain and thunderstorms after the hurricane had passed.

"An even better solution would have been a 12-V adapter for my laptop, but I didn't have one. The next time (if I don't wind up buying an emergency generator), I'll just keep an extra car battery on hand and make sure it's charged up before the power goes out.

"Being without power for a number of days taught me some interesting things. I had one of those emergency jump-start boxes for the car with a 17.5-A-hr battery in it. It would have powered the laptop for about five hours, but then I had no way to recharge it. So I used it sparingly with the inverter to power one of those 15-W fluorescent light bulb replacements. That put out much more light than any of the oil lamps or flashlights I had. But when the power is out, all this rechargeable stuff is useless once the batteries run down.

"I wound up using just about every flashlight I owned, and each one was better suited to a particular task. A flashlight with four white LEDs tied to a floor-lamp pole made a passable reading light with very long battery life. A small battery-powered fluorescent light gave out dim light but was perfect for lighting up the bathroom or kitchen just enough to see my way around. I kept two penlights in my shirt pocket at all times in case I had to quickly look for something in a pitch-black room. Good thing I had two, as the bulb burned out in one. And, my big Maglite with four D cells was perfect for going outside or looking for something in the garage.

"Thank God the eye of the hurricane had weakened by the time it passed over us. The winds were only about 75 mph, but that was enough to uproot a lot of big oak trees around here, and some of them fell on people's houses. I lost a big maple tree that was about six feet in front of my house. Fortunately, it fell parallel to the house and not on top of it.

"The wildest thing was, I have a solid wood front door. But it has three recessed panels in it as a design. The hurricane was driving the rain so hard against the door that it pushed water through the seams in the panels and soaked my rug!"

I'm hoping for the best for Bob and for everyone in Florida dealing with the aftermath of these twin terrors. I'm hoping, too, that power is restored quickly. First, it's a matter of public safety. But second, I don't think most of the general public is quite as innovative as Bob!

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