By Ron Young —
No matter how well you think you are prepared for the unexpected there is always the “bolt from the blue,” that thing that occurs that you didn’t expect or plan for, also known as the unknown unknown. It’s such a commonplace reference in the aerospace industry, unknown unknowns are abbreviated as ‘unk-unk’. Donald Rumsfeld made the concept infamous during the Iraq war in the statement: “There are … unknown unknowns—there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
Well, I had an encounter with unk-unks during a recent snowstorm and power outage and I’m sure I was grunting unk but also uncle many times that weekend.
When the power goes out and you have a battery back up system as I do, you hardly notice, especially if it’s relatively short-term. We get power from BC Hydro but we also have solar and wind generated power that is stored in a battery. When the battery is fully charged from wind or solar (PV) then the system automatically switches designated loads to run off the stored energy until the battery is depleted. In this way we can run household lights and appliances for many hours a day exclusively from renewable energy sources and reduce our carbon footprint while lowering our BC Hydro bill.
But it seems that when one thing goes wrong Murphy’s Law dictates that the wrong thing, the problem, must bring friends to the party. Not only did the power go off, which is an eventuality I was prepared for; but also the snow came down one icy little flake after another until over 50 cm of accumulated chaos had arrived in record time. And then to finish off the threesome, the pump that supplies our house with water from the creek well quit working.
Water isn’t something you can do without for long and having had the occasional water problem in the past I put a couple of five gallon jugs of water aside for emergencies. But you can go through ten gallons of water really quickly in a two-person household. Even if you are prudent about when you flush the toilet (which in an older toilet can use nearly five gallons per flush) you will still need several gallons for cooking, drinking, and washing. An added source for clean water is your hot water tank, which you can drain, making sure you first turn off the breaker so the heating elements don’t switch on in an empty tank and quickly burn out.
Well, after an entire weekend of problem-solving it put me in mind of thinking ahead and preparing for possible emergencies. While I don’t want to become fixated on the subject I have to remind myself to pay attention, to have ‘situational awareness’ as it is called in the military. It’s wintertime and if you’re going to travel winter roads what will you do if you have a breakdown? Many of us in the rural Cariboo live in areas without cell coverage so while having a cellphone is a good idea it isn’t a panacea. Having clothes and shoes that are suitable for walking some distance in cold weather is essential gear. Having a source of heat is a great idea such as hand warmers or a small beeswax candle. Beeswax burns significantly hotter and longer than other wax and a single candle can be a lifesaver. Other simple things that are often overlooked in winter vehicles are: a portable shovel; a length of strong rope in case you need towing; a set of battery starter cables; and, a good flashlight. Throw in a couple of energy bars for good measure.
Household preparedness is another matter. The world we live in nowadays seems to be more volatile and unpredictable than it ever was. So we have to think in terms of streams of essentials that make up our daily lives. Then think of what steps we will take if any of those streams are diverted or interrupted. The aforementioned water is one essential—food, heat, communications, and energy to power lights and some basic appliances are other essentials. A good backup plan is to create a small safety margin in each of those critical streams that will help us bridge unexpected events.
In the energy department, which is my area of expertise, I would suggest a good minimum strategy is to have a deep cycle battery with a small inverter/charger that keeps the battery charged when it’s not needed. When the power goes out, this system will power some lights, a cellphone charger, a TV or computer, or even a microwave. There are all-in-one battery packs with built-in inverters available at hardware stores but they are light duty and useful mainly for some lights. A proper back-up power system will have at least 200 amp hours of battery capacity with a minimum 1000-watt inverter and a built in charger. It’s inexpensive to add a solar panel to this combination that can also recharge the battery.
While it’s not reasonable or realistic to try to have a back-up plan that covers all possible emergencies, you can take important steps towards insuring your family’s safety and comfort in case of unexpected events. You will find that the more you think about this and take small measures, the more you begin to see the bigger picture and learn effective strategies. There will always be unknown unknowns.
unk-unk n. especially in engineering, something, such as a problem, that has not been and could not have been imagined or anticipated; an unknown unknown.
Ron Young is a renewable energy professional that designs and sells and installs solar, wind, and micro-hydro systems. He operates the earthRight store in Williams Lake, BC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Ron Young 2013