16 hours during a PSPS : Public Safety Power Shutoff

We had high wind forecasted, blowing through town up to 40mph with gusts double that on the ridge tops. A red flag fire warning was put up by NOAA, and right around lunchtime a text came out from Southern California Edison: we’re probably going to shut down the power.

Last fall my team and I combed through the wreckage of the Camp Fire up in Paradise. It was a grisly affair, stitching together an unknown amount of death and carnage. The total fatalities got to 85, the damages to $16 billion, and even a year later there is still one person missing. The cause was PG&E’s electrical equipment, and PG&E ultimately filed bankruptcy. Power companies can be held liable, including criminally, for the results of their power transmission.

About two years ago we installed a generator and wired in a transfer switch. It was a combined $2,000 that seems dumb right up until the power goes off in which case you feel like it was the best two grand you’ve ever spent. Living with our system now for a couple of years I’ve learned a few things.

Generators without transfer switches are peanut butter without jelly.

With that transfer switch, I can move four 20 amp circuits in the house back and forth between the generator and the main utility line. I didn’t bother with the 220. Don’t mind the drywall hole.

You can get a decent generator for about $500. Then you can plug a cord into it, and then you need to get the cord into your house. But how are you going to power your fridge or wired appliances (like in-ceiling lights)? The big reveal: you’re not.

So while a generator is cool the transfer switch is what makes it amazing. This is covered a bit more in my generator install post from 2017.

Running the generator 24/7 is ridiculous.

Sure, you can do this if you have the fuel. But you only have so much fuel and you need to do an oil change every 100 hours. The longer you can stretch that out the better both from a preparedness and laziness perspective. Think mid-winter: you’re going to get on your knees in a snowstorm and do an oil change in 10f weather?

20 gallons of fuel for my generator is ~48 hours. If I only run the generator 12 hours a day,  I’m at 96 hours. If I run it from 0600-0900 and then again from 1600-2000 that’s only 7 hours a day, giving me nearly 14 days.

With that schedule, 14 days still equals 20 gallons of gas which is a manageable collection of (4) five gallon gas cans.

Running the generator 24/7 for 14 days would require 140 gallons of gas, or (28) five gallon cans: fairly insane to manage. It’s also an oil change every 4th day.

You really don’t need to power most things.

Around dinner time or first thing in the morning our family is buzzing about. We’re making food, using hot water, running the stove, and flipping lights on and off. These are good times to have the generator on.

But in the middle of the night the only things we find that we need are heat and a refrigerator / freezer. A half-full freezer will keep contents frozen for ~24 hours provided you keep the door shut. The regular refrigerator will go bad after about 4 hours.

Fortunately we have an Engel fridge that can house our stuff that actually might go bad: dairy and meat, primarily. The Engel is also for camping, so it’s not just a preparedness thing. If the beer gets cold or the cucumbers don’t stay perfectly chilled it’s going to be okay. Our Engel will run for 24 hours on our combo inverter-battery unit. And ~7 hours of generator time per day will keep it charged up to 100% as well, so no biggie.

The fridge and freezer running for ~7 hours a day will keep the freezer contents frozen, and the fridge will stay cool enough for the items left in there.

I need a battery system for the pellet stove.

The pellet stove doesn’t use a lot of power: it’s just two fans an auger motor (about 150 watts, for those interested). I think I might look into a second combo-inverter-battery thing or (2) Trojan T105‘s with an inverter/charger. Anyone from the maritime world should know all about these batteries. We have weeks or months of pellets stashed so fuel isn’t the issue, and there’s no need to run a generator to supply the meager amount of power that a pellet stove consumes.

People aren’t running around looting.

It was getting dark, the power had been out for ~6 hours, and we heard that it might stay off for over 48 hours. All of a sudden a little power outage turned into more than 2 days without reliable electricity. Not the end of the world, but honestly more than most people are ready for. Things you expect to do tomorrow or even the next hour have to change.

Plus, no power doesn’t just mean darkness. For many it means cold. Even if you have a propane furnace you need electricity to spin the fan. It can mean financial problems if you’re out of gas and need to get out of town for work. It can mean serious problems if you need medication or food while the card readers are down and you’re cashless.

Vons in Mammoth during the outage. They had backup power, people shopped by cell phone light, and they had a satellite data connection so credit cards still worked.

I was a little sketched to head into town, if I’m being honest. For a moment I seriously considered grabbing a firearm for my truck, then I seriously considered that a bad idea and brought a better flashlight instead.

There were cars parked at the non-functioning gas pumps. People were stuck as the closest fuel was roughly 45 minutes south if you can rely on those even working.

Cellular access was either bad or non existent.

Depending on your network, cell phones either dropped coverage entirely, dropped data, or dropped everything but emergency (911) calls. On a busy day for Mammoth there might be 50,000,000 people in town and I believe there are 2 AT&T towers.

Suddenlink (our Internet provider and that of most people in Mammoth Lakes) was online for a couple of hours, provided you had a way of powering your modem. But eventually the battery system in their access centers died and that went away as well.

2m amatuer (ham) radio is where it’s at, with a good antenna.

I’ve previously written about becoming a ham radio dork, and I think that lessons was reinforced during outages. We have a 2m repeater sitting on top of Mammoth Mountain, and that covers everything from Postpile to Deadmans, and from the White Mountains to the Lakes Basin (my very rough sketch is available on CalTopo).

I managed to contact a friend in the ghetto center of town, him on his handheld and me on a cool extendable dipole, hanging in our living room window.  I’m probably going to go with a permanent and beefy vertical antenna above the roof, above the snow line, so I can hit any antenna in town.

At least here in Mammoth, starting from zero and including all hardware and the FCC license exam you’ll have a bulletproof communication system for under $200.

Like a generator transfer switch these things can all seem fairly unnecessary right up until you’re thinking “damn, I wish I had that right now.”

This is better than dying.

Our town has had a lot of people getting mad about this outage and even as I type this Edison is considering shutting down the grid again. It’s inconvenient and a lot of the solutions (generators, batteries, electrical work) are expensive and not really practical if you don’t own your own home. Even if you own a condo, you might not be allowed to modify your panel wiring.

But going back to the Camp Fire and it’s death toll, it’s possible that this is the new normal. I have a $500 Playstation 4 and a ~$500 television. Why don’t I have $1000 worth of batteries to run my pellet stove through a 24 hour period? What can seem like a wonky-tinkershop solution these days might be standard practice tomorrow.

Twenty years ago electric cars were something for the bleeding edge of technology enthusiasts. The Tesla Model 3 with a $35,000 price tag changed that in short order. It’s possible that homes themselves will have more power production and storage than they do today and the grid will be a nice-to-have but certainly not a necessity.

It sounds like fantasy land, but it’s how I’m designing our electrical system from here on out.

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