north island life: in which we buy a generator (when in rome)

Our new friend
Here on Vancouver Island, frequent power outages are a fact of life. 

Obviously outages happen everywhere, but when high-wind storms come ripping off the Pacific, we're the windbreak. On the North Island, add thousands of acres of tall trees, with instability caused by logging. Add to that a remote region where it may be many hours before work crews arrive, and the source of the outage can sometimes only be located by helicopter. 

The last outage lasted 30 hours, the one before that 19 hours. These are not at all newsworthy. As I said, a fact of life.

Our wood stove keeps us warm, and I bought a little camp stove for basic cooking. (No need to add the indignity of caffeine withdrawal to the general discomfort.) But still, it's boring, it's annoying, and it can be expensive and wasteful.

The last time an outage hit, we had a freezer full of food. Allan works remotely. How many times do you want to tell your employer you can't work because you have no power? He also uses a CPAP machine for sleep apnea. During the last outage, I banished him to the futon.

I thought owning a generator was an indulgence for the wealthy... until now. As soon as the power goes out, there's a long lineup up at the gas station. Now I understand why: gas-powered generators.

We bought a portable, inverter model, enough to run the fridge and some electronic equipment, and some heavy-duty extension cords. We've done a test-run, and with any luck, we've lived through our last major outage.


Amy said...

After you first raised the generator issue, I checked into these gas operated ones. One of our neighbors has one and says it works great. But for us it wouldn't work since part of why we need one is for the times we are away and we don't want food to spoil or pipes to burst. So we'd need one that goes on automatically. At the moment it's not in our budget, but then we don't have frequent blackouts where we are. But it's something we plan to do in the future.

laura k said...

Is it difficult to plan to use everything in the freezer before being away for an extended time? It seems like that would be easier and less expensive than a full backup generator system.

I'm not sure how the generator fits in with bursting pipes. Would that be likely to happen before power was restored?

Amy said...

We are gone for months at a time in both the winter and summer now. Pipes could burst if there was a severe cold snap that lasted days and we had no power. I don't worry about these nightmare scenarios, but Harvey does.

We do empty the freezer and refrigerator as best we can when we are going to be away for more than a week, but there are times we are away just for several days when we don't think of that. We once threw out a lot of food because we were gone and power was out for several days.

As I said, I am less worried about these things, but Harvey had a lot of hesitancy also about keeping gasoline in the basement or garage and about maintaining the generator. Our neighbor who has one is home all the time and is a retired fireman. So he filled Harvey's head with various downsides even though he hinself is happy with his. I think we will eventually bite the bullet and get an electric one installed. Probably within a year or so.

laura k said...

Peace of mind is very important. I guess that's part of the cost of living in more than one location.

Throwing out food feels awful -- although you'd have to throw out a lot of food to recupe the costs of installing a backup generator.

Despite your neighbour's warning, there's no need to store gas. The portable generator can only be turned on manually, which means you have to be there -- so you can buy gas as needed. Storing gas while you're away would be useless. Just something to throw in the mix.

johngoldfine said...

We've lost power for extended periods, a day or two usually, but 13 days in the Great Ice Storm back in 1998, and more recently eight days in the Great Wind of 2019. The biggest problem for us is watering horses--we only have two now, but they need 4-8 gallons a day, depending on the season and whether they are on grass or hay. Without power, no well pump....

Secondarily, like Harvey, we have to worry about burst water pipes. We do have a woodstove, plenty of firewood, and the odd five-gallon carboy here and there for cooking, a bit of a bath, and so on.

Still, we probably would have soldiered on with more carboys and crossed fingers, if we had not had foundation work done last spring. The foundation work demanded rerouting plumbing and the rerouted plumbing could no longer work by gravity which meant a sewage pump (probably TMI at this point, but....) which meant our old no-power toilet flush with carboy water and gravity could no longer work.

So, we came to generators.

The most likely scenario for extended power outage would be a blizzard or a hurricane. To use a gas, diesel, or PTO generator would mean starting the tractor, plowing a path across the dooryard (if a blizzard) to the house, and dragging out the generator to a spot where it could be protected from snow or rain (we'd have needed a dedicated shed near the house probably.)

So, fuck it, we got a Generac propane unit, automatic turn-on, lives outdoors, no muss no fuss, no snowdrifts or high winds to get lost in....

Every time the wind picks up, Jean and I look at each other, smirk, and say, 'Gee, hope we don't lose power!' Fact is, we haven't lost power since the damn thing was put in last August.

Most of my neighbors have generators too, and the larger message I get is that the privately-owned public electric utility we depend on has privatized a good deal of its emergency response, more or less expecting homeowners to take up the slack, allowing Central Maine Power to cheap out on long-term line maintenance.

It's nice for me to be able to afford my fancy-ass generator, but I live in a poor town in a poor region of a poor state, and the macro-picture is ugly.

Amy said...

As John described it, winters in New England can be treacherous especially in these days of climate change. Some winters are very mild, and others are brutal. I am glad to hear Harvey isn't the only one concerned about frozen pipes. Actually that's one reason so many of our neighbors caved and got generators this past year although it was actually a heat wave where the power was out for four to five days that really got people motivated to spend the money.

johngoldfine said...

Amy, draining water pipes before travel might be an idea. I drain the unheated upstairs bathroom every fall.

laura k said...

We live in probably the only place in Canada where draining pipes before the start of winter is not required. Even where I grew up in NY State and certainly Allan in northern Vermont, that was the norm.

The privatization of utilities is a nightmare, taking place everywhere with zero meaningful public input or review. It's been such a disaster everywhere that some states and provinces are finally returning to public management. We had huge issues with this in Ontario. I want more public everything.

No doubt for many situations a portable gas-powered generator is totally useless. I'm grateful to be able to afford the option.

laura k said...

Also Amy, my point wasn't 'you should buy a portable generator'. It was that if you are or were considering it, there is no reason to store gasoline. Just in case that wasn't clear. :)

Amy said...

Got it, Laura. For some reason our neighbor keeps the gasoline in his garage. Maybe he's worried that if power is out, the gas stations won't have power either and there will be no way to fill the tanks for the generator?

mkk said...

I am so glad you now have a generator! Maybe you won't need it too often -- like carrying an umbrella so it won't rain!

johngoldfine said...

We lost power for a half-hour yesterday, but with our new generator, we had power again automatically after a few seconds. Traditionally, conventionally people say, 'Oh, in the olden days, there wasn't radio, tv, computers, phones. People made their own fun! Cards, charades, reading, singalongs by the piano!'

So, we had power via generator, but for some reason, Jean and I didn't turn the computers back on. We started an elaborate conversation about the sudden end of the dinosaur age and what scientists, geologists, paleontologists, preachers say and went back and forth and around and around and...suddenly the main power was back on, the generator was off, and we realized that in our conversation-ing we'd instinctively been living the no-power lifestyle for a half-hour, which we both found hilarious.

laura k said...

Ha! Love it. :)