Sunday, February 21, 2021

Texas Deep Freeze Feb 2021

While the recent cold weather storm was (and to some extent still is) a nightmare.  I had it relatively easy.  I only lost power for 37 hours.  Some folks in the neighborhood lost it for over 70 hours, and a week later, just got their water back on.  But I wanted to put down my story, and some of my thoughts.

First, I should let you know about my background.  I was in the military and for a few years was stationed in Rome, NY (mid to upper state near the Adirondacks).  I've gone out cross country skiing when it was -20° F -- though thinking back that wasn't very smart.  But it means I had and still have some cold weather gear.  But I now live in the hill country between San Antonio and Austin Texas.  It seldom drops to much below 30° F even in the winter.

I also love backpacking and have sleeping bags (only down to +20°) and both iso-propane canister and alcohol stoves.  And this last year we converted a van for travel/camping.  It has a diesel stove, diesel heat/hot water, and fairly large capacity lithium batteries.

In the 20 years or so we've been in Texas, I think we had one power outage over 2-3 hours, maybe 12 hours long.  We are on well water, so we have to have electricity for water.  I had plenty of bottles of water, and I even filled the van's fresh water tank half full.

We were told we might get rolling blackouts starting Sunday, and the temperature was expected to drop to 5 or 6° F both Sunday and Monday nights.  I don't remember it ever dropping below the high teens at our Texas home.  And it wasn't supposed to get above freezing till Tuesday, and barely then.  I was running a small ceramic heater in the van to keep the batteries warm, and it was doing an excellent job.  I was also using a small ceramic heater in our well house.

So I decided to sleep in the van Sunday and try to keep the batteries on during the outages.  Also, this was a chance to see how well the diesel heat worked in the van.   The diesel heat was doing well, and I had turned off the ceramic heater.  After I got bored with watching old movies, I went to bed early.  I awoke about 9:30 pm and noticed it was colder in the van.  I checked the heater vents, and the air was only room temperature coming out.  I shut off the diesel furnace and turned on the ceramic heater.  I went back to sleep until about 11:00 pm, when I awoke again, and decided to check the battery status.  They were down to 34%, when it should have been near 100%.  The ceramic heater was set for 1500 W output.  I then checked the inverter, and it showed no shore power (we were in a power outage).  So I shut down the batteries and came into the house.  I was later told the power went out about 8:00 or 8:30.  Because the van operates such that it switches to batteries when there is no shore power, I did not notice when it happened.

By the way, I think the diesel in the lines gelled and likely fouled the fuel filter on the diesel furnace.

The house started at 72° F and went down for the next 36 hours to about 48°.  Monday was sunny, though cold, and I think it helped reduce the heat loss during the day.  I typically wore long underwear, a light fleece top, and lightly insulated snow pants.  When I went outside to check the well house, I added a puffy and a raincoat (for wind).  By the way, we got a whopping 2-4" of snow!  Waterproof mittens, a cap, raincoat hood, and boots rounded out my attire.  I was toasty even outside at 6 degrees.  I slept using my 20° down quilt and long underwear, and was warm at night too.

For food, I used some instant oatmeal, freeze dried lasagna, and chili that I had prepared before the outage.  The alcohol stove seemed to work better than the canister stove at those temps.  I set up an aluminum bench in the garage, raised the garage door a couple of feet, and heated my water and chili in the garage (to avoid toxic fumes).

The biggest problem was disposal of human waste.  We have three bedrooms and four toilets in the house.  Worse, I got a mild case of the runs.  I think it was old, bad milk that didn't make it through the outage.  You could flush a toilet once, but not twice since there was no water to refill the tanks.  I was using lots of hand sanitizer.  It was not what I would call a sanitary situation.

On Tuesday morning, the toilet issue was becoming very urgent.  I decided to bring the composting toilet in the van into the house.  Shortly afterwards (I was hoping I would jinx the power back on), the power came back on.  I had turned off the power to the well-house pumps to avoid breaking any pipes or burning out the motor when the power came back on with frozen pipes.  So still no water.  The composting toilet was a godsend.  I cannot imagine how large families handled the situation.

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, when I tried running the pump (after the outside air had warmed above freezing), I got a lot of noise and no water pressure.  I never heard anything back from our usual plumber.  On Friday, the temps were rising, and suddenly I got water pressure.  It surged to 75 psi in about 5 minutes while I was outside doing some work.  I shut off the pump immediately as it was supposed to have a pressure switch set at 40-50 psi.  I also tried gently rocking the pressure bladder tank.  It appears completely waterlogged.  The only good news was that the pump still worked and we didn't have any broken water lines.

I finally got ahold of our plumber who said he does not work on well systems and that his plumbing supply house doesn't even carry those types of pressure switches.  The local well system company has not gotten back to me.

I've been turning the pump on manually till about 60 psi, then using water for a while, then checking the psi again.  I was able to run the dishwasher, and the clothes washer that way.   Hopefully, we will get some help with the well system in the near future.

Before leaving, I wanted to comment on some of the things I've read about in the news.  First, a word about our winter weather up till now.  I've been going hiking and leaving before dawn every few days.  Most days, the temperature has been below 30, and as low as 25 degrees.  I believe people set their thermostats to something they find comfortable and leave them there.  Most people in our area will have heat pumps.  In town, they probably have gas/propane furnaces.  While a lot of us in our area have wells, a lot of the newer subdivisions use city water (from Canyon Lake).

Anyway, the point I wanted to make is that nobody turns their thermostat up when the temperature drops.  Any additional power used by homes most likely comes from the furnace's duty cycle going up to compensate for the dropping temperatures.  This is totally predictable, and is NOT due to people's bad behavior in turning up their furnace or turning on more heaters.  Journalists or bloggers that say that people turned up their thermostats because of the cold are not being honest.

Further, to my knowledge, I was never asked to turn the thermostat down, until after the event.  And even that message turned out to be a hoax.  If the power system operators believed turning down thermostats would have helped, there should have been a widespread news request to do so.  Maybe I just didn't see it?  But their announcement of the possibility for rolling outages made it seem like it was just a possibility, and nothing to worry about.  Just a temporary inconvenience.

Next, the news reported that a storm in the winter of 2011 resulted in recommendations to weather proof the power grid in Texas (maybe that was the 12 hour outage I vaguely remember).  The reports indicate no weather-proofing was completed.  It is my belief that people are mad about what happened.  Lots of them live in urban settings with gas, power, and water supplied from utilities.  They have no options when services are disrupted, and their lives are put in danger.  Those who have some of their own systems, like our well water, are going to encounter extended outages and expenses--because power that we relied on disappeared for extended periods. 

Governor Abbot had better make sure this problem is fixed, and make the changes public, or he's going to be out on his bum at the next election. 

Personally, I do not like to rely on public utilities, so I've thought about changes.  I should have stored water in our two tubs before the cold arrived.  I should have charged my lithium battery backups for iPhone and iPad usage (I did have one charged).  I cannot do much about the van batteries if I cannot keep them warm (they automatically shut down somewhere between 20° and 30°).  I've ordered some diesel anti-gel and hope that that will keep the van's diesel furnace working.  And I need to keep more stove fuel on-hand.

Keep warm and safe!

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