There may be a power cut and the candles burn down low
But something inside of me says the bad news isn't so.
- Sir Paul McCartney - 'Power Cut'
Almost all of us use electricity non-stop. It has become an essential part of everyday life, but is easily taken for granted and largely unnoticed throughout the day. The only time its impact is truly felt is when we are forced to go without it.
We asked h2g2 researchers some simple questions. Have they ever had no electricity for a lengthy period of time? If there's a power cut, what do they do? Do you have any recommendations on how to deal with the situation?
Perhaps the most important advice provided if the power does go off is to check that it's not just the circuit breaker that's tripped. Then see if your neighbours are also affected and find out whether they have reported the issue. If the power cut appears to be very local, give your electricity company a call and report the problem. Otherwise your power cut may be unreported to your electricity company; they are unlikely to fix a problem they are unaware of.
How to Pass the Time
We asked our Researchers how they passed the time during a power cut, and received the following responses.
I watch television by candlelight, obviously.
We both now own Kindles, and I have a travel battery pack that can charge both at least twice. We just carry on.
If it really is a cut, I'll usually go and put warm clothes on - it's invariably during cold weather!
My emergency plan starts with explaining to my children that life is possible without the Internet.
Other Researchers had more detailed responses on how to stay entertained during these interruptions in normal everyday life.
We're lucky where I live that the power cables have been renewed so power cuts are much less frequent than they used to be, and when they do happen they can be fixed more quickly. The last one was only for a couple of hours, so I switched my large torch on and played games on my battery-powered tablet. When I was a child, power cuts most often happened during thunderstorms, so the family would sit round the light of the gas fire and our little wind-up musical box would play 'Whistle a Happy Tune'.
Another Researcher made the important distinction that your behaviour may well change depending on the time of day.
Daytime isn't too bad, we have a gas hob we can light with a match so can still have hot food and drinks. I'll read or do some active task that doesn't need electricity - like sorting out a cupboard. We'll avoid opening the fridge or freezer in the hope that the food will be okay.
Among the points the discussion raised was exactly how widespread electricity is, which highlights how big an interruption a power cut can be. One Researcher said:
As we're a maisonette we have no gas, everything including the boiler is electric.
While another similarly stated:
[Although] my furnace uses kerosene, electricity is needed to make it go on and power the fan that blows hot air through the floor vents.
This just shows that there really is no substitute for being prepared for the situation. The better equipped you are, then the more likely you are to be able to carry on almost as normal with a minimum of interruption to your daily routine. Many Researchers provided some simple advice to be prepared for a power cut:
- Start the petrol generator.
- If the power is off for a long time in winter, pile more quilts on the bed.
- Have enough covers to keep warm.
- Have a stove that uses liquid propane.
The fundamental prerequisites of life are food, water and heat, so it is unsurprising that ensuring you have these, along with light, are our Researchers' priorities. With packaged food in plentiful supply and so not an immediate need, the necessity of having light, water and heat are summarised in the following Researcher's preparation:
I have a couple of car battery boosters that have built-in inverters. Each can power small table lamps with compact fluorescent bulbs for quite some time. Along with a couple of large jugs of drinking water, and a wood-burning fireplace - we've gone a couple of 20ish hour blackouts.
Another Researcher had a specific place in their home where everything needed in the event of a power cut is kept;
I store the power cut supplies in an accessible wooden box at home. These consist of four head torches, my camping lights, other torches including a clockwork one and a battery-powered radio.
Of course, the fundamental necessities of life can change depending on an individual's circumstances. Many people will need to store vital medicine, etc, safely, with potential power cuts a threat to this. One Researcher admitted:
Actually, thinking about it, I really ought to have a plan in place what to do if there is a power cut, now, as I'll be without a fridge, and the injectable growth hormone in there won't last long without refrigeration. I guess if I've got some ice blocks in the freezer then they can then provide some way to keep it cold for about 48 hours, which hopefully would be long enough. Or I could try to transport them in a cold bag to someone nearby who's got a fridge working and then visit them every night at midnight to inject myself.
Nostalgia and the 1970s
During Britain's General Strike of the 1970s power cuts were the norm, although at least they were at scheduled times which allowed a degree of normality to continue. Two Researchers shared their memories of the time.
I remember the power cuts in the early 70s. I'd leave school with power and travel home on the bus into a zone seeing candlelight in people's houses and shop windows. We organised cooking around times the power would be on.
Another Researcher had a similar experience:
To an extent we, as a family, were lucky as my Dad worked at the local power station. Their job was restricted so they could not strike but did 'work to rule'. However my Dad would warm Mum when a power outage was due so food was prepared early, often sandwiches. Don't forget food was still fairly basic then. And we were bathed. Mum would also notify close friends.
Modern technology was not directly affected, as, apart from the three television channels which only broadcast at certain times, we didn't miss much, and the radio was battery powered. Light was by Tilley and hurricane lamps and candles. We did our homework, then played cards, etc. I don't remember being dramatically affected although it did seem to drag on for a fair while but that could just be hindsight playing tricks.
Geography and Meteorology
Many of the Researchers who frequently experience power cuts do so because of where they live. Especially if they live in areas that are prone to violent storms or extreme weather conditions. While many Researchers are fortunate to live somewhere where a full power cut is merely an inconvenience that requires a torch, and, in winter, maybe an extra blanket or jumper, that is not the case everywhere. When power cuts are a regular occurrence, it pays to be prepared.
Weather conditions that have caused power cuts include:
The last power cut we experienced was Boxing Day 2015 when we visited the in-laws up north in Leeds, which was experiencing flooding. After the children had fallen asleep there was a power cut. As it was Christmas the in-laws had candles on display anyway, and as Father Christmas had given the kids 'Charades for Kids' we opened the box and were playing charades by candlelight. Only one Christmas decoration caught fire...
The village that I grew up in was right in the middle of a snow belt, so there were often times that power would be lost and roads impassable. Old style oil lamps and candles kept light for the 14 or 15 hours that aren't daylight. A wood-burning stove was always ready to fire up as needed. 'Santa Claus' kept us as a family of eight well stocked on cards and board games.
And it wasn't uncommon for my father to take the tractor with an 8'-wide snow-blower through the village to collect seniors - my grandparents and a few widows. Watching them come up the street, wrapped in blankets and standing in the front-loader bucket of that tractor was a bit comical. Sharing home and heat was partly good nature and goodwill, but the extra people also helped to add body heat.
I live on the Texas Gulf coast, so we periodically have outages caused by hurricanes. Depending on where one lives, the outage can last for days, weeks, or even months in some limited cases... We tend to be prepared here. For the first night following the storm, I broke out the Coleman lantern, a bottle of Scotch, a battery-operated radio and a large pistol. I sat on the porch under the lantern so any looters entering the neighbourhood would see it was not abandoned.
The next day, as other neighbours returned to watch their own homes, I broke out the Honda generator. I hooked it up to the refrigerators and freezer periodically to keep food from spoiling (if you don't open them they don't need to run constantly). At night the generator ran my bedroom A/C as the night time lows were still well over 80° Fahrenheit (over 25° Celsius). During ensuing days I tested the limits of the generator adding more appliances and devices to it. I was able to run the 'fridges, a few lights, the satellite receiver and TV, the cable modem and laptop. Most of the early days are spent chopping fallen trees and repairing damages.
Slightly Cold Spell!
I was sitting at my local having a beer and a neighbour came in telling his tale of heroism. In the middle of a night earlier that week his next-door neighbours knocked on his door asking for refuge from the cold. Their central air and heating system had broken that evening and they were worried for their young children. He welcomed them in and made them comfortable. He went on to tell about the particular problems with the heating system and how between the repairman getting the wrong part and other delays, the neighbours stayed with him for several days. This fellow and his neighbours were all in their early 30s or late 20s.
I let him finish his tale of neighbourly good samaritanism. Then I just pointed out that the temps never dropped below 40° Fahrenheit (4° Celsius) all week... Apparently folks their age have never heard of extra blankets, portable space heaters or even electric blankets. There is a 24-hour Walmart just down the road. ...He didn't rescue anyone, he pampered them. Spoilt brats!
Other Researchers have experience of other local geographic factors that impact on how frequently they have power cuts, or how best to cope with a power cut. One Researcher said:
My area is full of huge old oak trees. With the powerful gusts of wind we've been having, it would be so easy for a falling tree or big branch to take down some electric wires.
While another had a potential problem with their water supply whenever a power cut occurred:
At my previous house we always used to fill a bowl with water because the local water supply was gravity-fed from a water tower which in turn was electrically pumped from a reservoir. After a four hour cut there was never any water in the pipes.
Of course, electricity companies should be working to reduce the risk of power cuts occurring.
We used to have quite a few cuts in our current home, for example when very windy. I think they've mended most of the weak places now.
Power Cuts at Work
Of course it isn't just at home that you can be affected by power cuts, with them striking the workplace also. A frequent cause is workmen cutting through cables. For example, one Researcher worked at a University where all building work, improvements and repairs have to take place in a hurry during the summer break. It was a tradition that each week during the summer the workmen would either set off a fire alarm, cause a power cut, or, in one case, accidentally flood the server room. Yet this problem is not limited to the educational sector.
What is the impact of a power cut on a modern business? Simply put, technology doesn't like it, even when the power comes back on. Servers and network devices often hang in a non-operational state. Applications and batch processing can fail in the middle of tasks. Databases can even get corrupted. Office telephony is often over the firm's network so companies can lose that too and have to rely on mobile signals. One Researcher shared these very experiences with the words:
I sometimes have to deal with power cuts affecting technology services to my employer. These are a mix of planned and unplanned (workmen regularly dig through cables, even in this day and age). In the data centres, they have dual power supplies from different sources, so in theory everything should stay up if you lose one of them. If an office loses power, then there are generally two backups. There's emergency battery power, which kicks in immediately and keeps some floors running for an hour or two. There are also generators in some locations covering critical circuits. Both of these backups are temperamental and, despite regular testing, they don't always work as planned. We declare a major incident when there's a power cut, and set up 'war rooms' for the key support staff and decision-makers. Computer users either go home to work, or find a coffee shop with an Internet connection, assuming their applications are still available.
Art and Inspiration
Power cuts aren't always a negative experience. Shared experiences like this encourage a spirit of community that brings people together1. Also, many works of art have been inspired by power cuts. For example, Paul McCartney was inspired to write his song 'Power Cut', which appears on Red Rose Speedway, during the 1972 General Strike. Twenty years later, during a power cut caused by Hurricane Bob in 1991, Paul spent the time without power writing songs, some of which appeared on his Flaming Pie album. 'Beautiful Night', one of the songs on this album, has a music video in which he deliberately causes a power cut in order to bring various lonely people who are trapped, isolated in their apartments, out of their boxes in order to spend time together.
Not every power cut is lengthy, with many lasting less than a second and have been described by Researchers as 'Power Blips'. One Researcher reported:
I can't actually recall the last time we had an actual power cut here, but we do often get 'power blips'. If it's during a time we're awake, and in, we can see the lights dim, or flicker off then on, and the digital wireless needs to be reset often. More often this occurs overnight though, and it is only noticeable by sometimes the Wi-Fi needing resetting, and the digital wireless needing a retune the next day. No doubt if I left the PC on, overnight, it would be off or reset by the morning in such a case...
Another Researcher agreed, saying:
Those power blips are annoying. Sometimes I ask myself 'did I just blink?' but no, there was a momentary power cut and I have to reset the time and alarm on my clock.
This of course raises the question of what happens when there is a power-blip while you're having a power nap and your alarm clock doesn't sound?
Power Cuts – A Thing of the Past?
Will the idea of people experiencing power cuts soon seem as outdated as life before electricity itself? Researchers speculated that a recent development in power generation may make power cuts a thing of the past. Whereas a few years ago, having photovoltaic panels would produce electricity that was fed into the grid, giving the panels' owners a reduced price for using the power from the grid, more recently, the power produced is first and foremost stored in large batteries inside the owners' house for their own use. A Researcher shared their experience by saying:
We had these installed last summer. By switching larger appliances (dishwasher, washing machine, iron, dryer and oven) on during daylight hours, we can now run them practically free. Of course, we still rely on incoming power from the grid during the night or when it is very cloudy and dull.
Based on the responses received, here in summary is a shopping list of what to get in order to be prepared for the next power cut:
- A visit from Father Christmas
- Axe for chopping firewood/fallen trees
- Boardgames & Playing Cards
- Café nearby, ideally with Wi-Fi
- Camping stove
- Flasks/containers of drinking water
- Musical box that plays 'Whistle a Happy Tune'
- Neighbours, grandparents and widows to supply body heat
- Petrol Generator
- Photovoltaic Panels
- Tea &/or coffee
- Torches/Oil lamps etc
- Wood Burner
Researcher 1: If there was a lengthy power cut I've got two camp stoves.
Researcher 2: I have a camp stove - it does mince.
The power is supposed to be out for a little while today because of routine mainte