Lessons from a Winter Power Outage in the Suburbs

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My family and I experienced a five-and-a-half-day power outage in Texas almost precisely ten years ago. The weather was not quite as bad as it was this year in February. However, with highs around 50 and lows around 20, it was still unpleasant, particularly with three small children.

We all survived and learned a little bit about long-term power outages.

How (we think) the power outage started

The summer before the outage, the power company had done some work in our backyard. We experienced no problems at the time, but the workmen probably nicked one of the wires because eight months later, after moisture had had time to get at the wires, we lost power when none of our neighbors did.  

We didn’t know we would be out of power for so long. We called an electrician who thought it would take only two days to fix. But he needed a permit from the city to tear up our yard, and it wound up taking longer than we thought. We kept thinking, “Well, it’ll only be one more day,” until it had been almost six days.

Most houses in our Houston suburb had electric heat, and we were no exception. Thankfully, we still had water but no way to heat anything except for our fireplace, located at one end of our living room. 

What we did to survive the power outage

We started by closing off the portion of the house with our bedrooms, going back there only to use the bathroom. Our goal was to keep the heat in the living room.

We moved the couch and chairs to the edge of the room, both for extra insulation and to open up the living room floor. Then we dragged our mattresses, comforters, and sleeping bags into the living room and placed them in front of the fireplace.  

It had seemed inconvenient at the time, but in retrospect, it was a blessing that one of our trees had died a few years previously. My then-husband decided to incorporate wood-chopping into his fitness routine, so we had a decent wood supply. The open fireplace didn’t keep the house super warm, but it was far better than nothing. My kids were five, almost three, and eight months old when this happened. We spent most of our time hanging out in front of the fire.  

My then-husband still had to go to his white-collar job, so he took cold showers every day. I tried cold-showering once but wimped out. After four days, the kids and I went to a friend’s house to bathe. We hadn’t been sweating, so our body odor wasn’t terrible, but we did get sooty from the wood fire.  (Here are some more tips for staying warm during a winter power outage.)

That fireplace kept us warm and fed and brought us closer together

I cooked over the fire of that fireplace. We baked potatoes, remembering to pierce them first. Anyone who doesn’t know what will happen if you forget to pierce a baked potato should read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy. I poured cans of soup in a Dutch oven and set that in THE coals.  

We managed to keep our house in the forties, so we were not faring as poorly as many Texans during this last cold weather snap. However, my youngest was not even a year old, and trying to keep him warm was nerve-wracking.  

The kids and I all ended up fine, and we learned a few things. In fact, in the end, when the power finally came back on, and my then-husband and I began putting the house back together, our two oldest children were disappointed.

“We’re not going to sleep in the dogpile anymore?”

That ordeal was annoying, exhausting, and expensive, but we learned a few things that week.

We had gotten lucky, and we realized it. Lucky we had a fireplace, lucky we had a woodpile, and fortunate that we still had water. We hadn’t planned on being without electricity for so long, but it worked out. 

I never wanted to be caught so unprepared again

We knew we wouldn’t be living in that neighborhood forever. When we looked for a house we planned on staying in long-term, we prioritized non-electric heating systems. I’d never liked electric appliances anyway, but a week using only an open fireplace for heat was enough.  

We bought the property on which I currently live with the intent to go off-grid. Since my divorce, I can’t afford the passive solar water heater or backup generator system. I have a propane furnace, water heater, and oven. The furnace and water heater need electric switches to get going, but the oven doesn’t, which means that I can still heat food even in a prolonged outage. And the oven warms the kitchen, as well. It’s not a prepper’s dream, but it’s better than nothing.  

(Here are some more tips to help you get prepped for a winter storm.)

Good neighbors can be hard to find, but entirely worth it

In Houston, we weren’t incredibly close to any of our neighbors. We lived far from family, as well; there was no one we would have felt comfortable asking for a lot of help. I wanted to move somewhere where people look out for each other a little more, and those tend to be rural areas. The higher the population density a particular area has, the less likely neighbors are to have personal relationships with each other.  

I lived in my house for less than six months when one of my neighbors came over. He owned multiple properties in my area, including a rental house next to mine. Their well was having problems, and his renters had no water. He wanted to know if he could run a series of hoses from my outdoor spigot to his renters’ house so they would have at least some water. 

I told him no problem; he had helped me mow the lawn after my husband left, so I was happy to return a favor. In my head, I wondered how this would all work. It worked pretty well. Even with the pandemic, there can be a sense of community.

Neighbors brainstorming and a piece of advice from one of them

My neighbor was frustrated; he couldn’t find a well repairman to come out and look at the well for a few days. My neighbor wound up working with it until he could fix the well himself, a day or two later. I was impressed at his ability to figure it out, and I told him so.

“You know, out here, you have to be a little bit of everything,” he told me.  

My well is electric, which means that if I lose power, I also lose water. I know that’s a weak point in my situation. My neighbors have electric wells too, and we have all talked about different options. Those of us with livestock store a few days’ worth of water in cisterns.

We have a backup plan to pump water in case of a longer-term SHTF event. It’s not entirely legal, so I won’t detail it here. We have thought this through. Two heads are better than one, and a small group of dedicated, hardworking people can accomplish a lot.

Our Texas power outage was a wakeup call

I am genuinely sorry for all the people impacted in the past few weeks. I know things will be difficult for a while until the plumbing gets repaired. It’s going to be a long process. I would love it if the powers that be made the necessary infrastructure changes so that this won’t happen again.

I grew up in the Chicago area and the grid there regularly withstood sub-zero temperatures. It’s the same everywhere up north. It’s not impossible to have resilient electrical grids. Maybe the regulators and politicians will do some soul-searching and start making some wise investments in reliability.

Has the recent power outage impacted you?

If you have been impacted, I sincerely hope you can stay clean, safe, and healthy. I gained some prepping insights that served me well later in life during my big power outage. Do you or anyone you know have advice or tips on how to survive an outage of this magnitude? What are some lessons you have learned personally during power outages? Let’s talk about it in the comments below. 

About Joanna Miller

Joanna has been homeschooling three children since 2012. In 2014, she moved to the High Plains of Colorado. She and her children began a little homestead, gardening and raising chickens for eggs and meat. One animal led to another, and these days they have livestock guardian dogs, chickens, geese, ducks, alpacas, goats, pigs, and one very spoiled cat.

Joanna Miller

Joanna Miller

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  • “The higher the population density a particular area has, the less likely neighbors are to have personal relationships with each other.”

    nothing keeping anyone from making it otherwise.

  • “It’s not entirely legal”

    what, you’re going to hook up your own generator to your segment of the power grid? you’re right, that’s not legal, and for a very good reason. if you have to do that then make sure you address the reason why it’s illegal or they WILL come looking for you.

    • Joanna wrote: ” We have a backup plan to pump water in case of a longer-term SHTF event. It’s not entirely legal, so I won’t detail it here. ”

      She didnt say she was going to power her home with a generator and risk it feeding back into the grid, which wud endanger power workers. I wud say she is going to move the power plug on her well pump from a 120V/240V outlet to a generator which will then power the pump. Been there, done that myself at our cottage.

    • When I built our home, I included a outside switch box that enables us to disconnect/reconnect with the electrical grid. We can go offline and use a generator to power everything without endangering utility workers. Preppers could also use a local switch to isolate their water pump from the grid. That would require using a power cable from the generator to the water pump receptacle. Recommend a licensed professional for installing such systems.

  • “It’s not impossible to have resilient electrical grids.”

    of course it’s not impossible. it’s just expensive. the regulators and politicians will implement whatever the rate payers will pay for, and not one penny more.

    (had an identical problem in california. every year pg&e would go to the puc’s (public utilities commission) and say “we need a rate increase to pay for line management and equipment replacement”, and the puc would say “no, we won’t pay for that, you pay for that.” went on for decades. then last year 100-year-old electrical equipment failed and started all those massive forest and residential fires – burned the town of paradise right off the map. then everyone whined, “pg&e didn’t maintain their equipment!” no, they didn’t, because the users refused to pay for it, and don’t get more than you pay for.)

    • While I agree the rates one pays should pitch in for maintenance cost, utility companies have NO issue paying out exorbitant salaries, bonus, and lest we forget “the shareholders”. Never mind that the same execs making the big bucks are also “shareholders”.

      A phone company in my area charges “fees” for various maintenance and “road work recovery”. IMHO, that should be part of the monthly charge.

      My all-time favorite is the smart grid in my state. For years electricity consumers had to pay a fee for the “smart grid”. And for years the utility sat on the money, finally installing said smart meters. But I am not sure if all meters have been replaced or not. Just don’t call them when a tree or branch is close to taking out a power line. They’ll deal with it a) when it falls and power goes out or b) when the area comes up for “tree trimming”.

      • “utility companies have NO issue paying out exorbitant salaries, bonus”

        do you want good managers for the grid? if you dictate drone wages then you’ll get drone managers.

        “the shareholders”

        do you want investors for the grid, or do you want your taxes raised to create a government agency to run a municipal/county grid answerable only to the politicians who don’t know how to run a grid but who DO know how to grandstand?

      • “the rates one pays should pitch in for maintenance cost”

        ideally sure. but when a puc sets rates, what happens is they’ll take public attitudes into account and postpone non-critical maintenance until it becomes a huge bill, and then they’ll take public attitudes into account and postpone critical maintenance because it’s a huge bill. makes you realize autocratic/patriarchal/dictatorial societies have their strong points.

    • PG&E has plenty of money to donate toward the Gay marriage prop in CA and many other issues. I had PG&E for sixty years with incredibly expensive power. I moved to a free state and my electric bill is a third of the price. PG&E brought in plenty of money to take care of the issues if they had been properly managed.

      • “PG&E has plenty of money to donate toward the Gay marriage prop in CA”

        cost of doing business in ca. remember, pg&e doesn’t set its own rates, the puc does, and the puc expects pg&e to be “socially conscious” or else.

  • “advice or tips on how to survive an outage”

    pop your house breaker for a weekend or a week. see how it goes, what works and what doesn’t.

  • Joanne-

    Great article. I thought I would leave you a comment that didn’t start with quotations marks or serialize pretentiousness.

    I live in the North East and when I was a kid, we had a massive ice storm that took out power at our house for 2.5 MONTHS. My parents heated with wood, and fortunately we had Mother Nature’s icebox to keep food fresh. We had oil lamps, a propane stove and our own well. It wasn’t awesome (I share your feelings on cold showers) but we were better off than most. My parents redid their home over many years and they both insisted on rural, rough weather practicalities.

    My home now is still in the NE, and when my partner and I chose to move to a more rural location, we were picky about what we bought. Over several years we’ve improved our home (over 180yrs old) and there are lessons from my childhood that I insisted on brining forward- we have a wood stove in our kitchen that is a source of non-electric heat. Our primary wood source is heat (although we do have a backup if the fire goes out). Probably one of the best things we did was keep all of the doors- its a very old farm house with the original oak doors on each room- it’s save our butts more than once to be able to segment the house.

    Thank you very much for sharing- lessons learned in childhood can carry us forward and help us keep the generations of survivalists and preppers going.

    • Thanks GhostViking, your first sentence made me laugh out loud 🙂 2.5 months without power is pretty impressive. Thank you for sharing as well.

    • I lived through that ice storm, also, but I’m closer to the coast, and so we didn’t lose power for nearly as long. We did, however, lose power for four days in December 2008 following another ice storm, and many times for several days here and there, including on Thanksgiving 2014. Like your parents, we heat with wood, and I have an abundance of oil lamps and (now) solar/USB rechargeable lights. We can cook and heat up water with our woodstove for coffee and baths, and since it really is our only heat (we have an oil-burning furnace, but we haven’t had an oil delivery since 2008), our house stays warm anyway.

      Re: showers, I took a hard pass on the cold shower option. As a very young teacher at my first teaching job, I moved into a house that had a gas stove and a gas water heater. I couldn’t afford to turn on the gas, and ended up having to take a few cold showers.
      These days, when my water heater isn’t working, because we don’t have electricity, I heat water on the woodstove. I pour the heated water in a tub for a hot bath or I use my homemade shower. I drilled holes in the lid of a soda bottle so that I could use it as a sprayer.

      The hardest part about the power outage is not being able to throw my clothes in the washing machine. I don’t have a dryer, and so drying them is the same no matter how I wash them. I do have a wash tub and a wringer-thingy. During the 2008 power outage, I washed my clothes in the tub and wrung them out with my wringer-thingy. I was putting them on the line when the guys from the power company drove down my road to work on our line and restore our power. If I had just waited another hour … :).

      Over the years, living here in the northeast, we have lost power so often – during the winter – that I made sure we were prepared for WHEN it happens.

  • I live in the Dallas area just went through the “Great Texas Freeze”. However, unlike most Texans, I have live through much colder times in the Colorado mountains. My wife is a native of CO and I have lived there twice at 8,000 ft. Those that were caught with their pants down during the recent freeze have no one to blame but themselves. The weather guessers told us it was coming. I stay stocked up on groceries, but went to the store a couple days before the storm to get some fresh fruit. The store was packed with those trying to get supplies at the last minute. I have propane heat and hot water in my house, so I filled the propane tank up just before the storm hit. I also have a fireplace with an insert and blower and plenty of wood. I used it to supplement the heater to keep from burning so much propane. I burned about a half rick of wood. I will say I was one of the lucky ones that only experienced the rolling blackouts for a few days, while some of my friends 2 or 3 miles away were without power for 3 or 4 days. But, they also survived by using their fireplaces. I have a generator and plenty of gas on hand, so I ran the generator during the daytime blackouts to power the fireplace blower and a space heater. We just bundled up and slept through the blackouts if they occurred at night. We stayed in the house for a week and I only went out to bring in more firewood (except for the one time I went out riding my side by side in the snow and 10 degree temps; had to have a little fun). We never lost water, although the pressure dropped significantly for several days. I had plenty of water on hand, just in case. Being prepared matters. Learning survival skills, whether through classes or the school of hard knocks (I’m the latter) is important, as is just good old common sense. Don’t wait until it’s too late and don’t count on others to bail you out.

  • Buy a generator to run your propane furnace and your well!! Duh!!!! You’ve spent how much $$ buying the propane scheme and then forget that electricity powers the units? Shame on you for overlooking the most OBVIOUS. A diesel house generator run only a few hours a day will work wonders….

    • I dont think joanna forgot. I know from experience that it takes $$$ & ingenuity to rig a generator to stand in for the power grid when you are trying to power the furnace computer & blower, and a well pump that will have a high current surge to start.

      • VA3ROD you’re exactly right. I did do quite a bit of research on it and talked to a couple contractors about installing a good backup generator that would power my well; it’s not in the budget right now. And I didn’t shell out for the propane system. It was here when I bought my house. It’s an old homesteading cabin that was updated with propane in the 1950’s which is typical for my area. I wanted to upgrade a lot when I bought the place but my husband left, I can’t afford major projects, so I am making do for now.

    • Use a gasoline powered generator if you live in a northern climate unless you have the money to purchase a high end, electric start diesel generator which has a plug to preheat the fuel. Cold diesel fuel will not work without the preheating plug.

  • I appreciate and enjoyed your article. I’m sorry that the first few comments were snarky. If they know so much, why don’t they write an article?

  • The lesson, painfully learned, was that we each experienced the circumstances we prepared for. It breaks my heart that people were left in the cold and dark. As for me and mine, we put another log in the fireplace, popped some corn and put a DVD in. We did have a brief moment of panic when a neighbors water pipe burst but we found the cutoff and turned it off. None of these preps came easily. We haven’t been on a vacation in seventeen years and our newest car is twelve years old. The last time we ate out was at a buffet that the pandemic has now closed. You get what you plan for.

  • I knew the weather in Houston was going to be catastrophic by the temps they were forecasting….but I grew up in Canada, where my bedroom window had a half inch thick coat of ice from Nov-April. Usually I’m out of town on a job at this time of the year…glad I was home. I RAN water (not dripped) from ALL faucets, including hot water. I didn’t have any pipe issues. I had bought a genset last year for hurricane readiness, sized to run two window a/c units and the frig. It was a good shakedown test for the genset to run electric heaters to supplement the nat gas heater I had as my only source of heat. I maintained 55-58F through the worst of it (8F outside) and learned that I’m STILL not all prepped.
    I’m planning for nat gas supply interuption next time. Texas will not have it’s energy supply winterized or ‘reliable’ by hurricane season, or even next winter (watching as Goldman Sachs stepping in to bail out ERCOT). Expanded potable water storage capability, and, glad I kept an old covered garbage can when the city supplied new ones. Going to fill it with hose water outside for flushing toilet. Dug an Olympian Wave heater out of the closet I’d bought on sale and finally ordered all the pieces to make it functional (hose, 90 deg elbow, feet, cover). Expanded the propane storage for the genset to include possible heat source next winter, too. Cooking without nat gas stove? Found an old butane click stove I used camping and upgraded to a better one that burns butane or propane. Dual fuel devices give you more choices.
    The people who suffered through this event had not a clue what this kind of weather could do. Many people live all their lives in areas in Texas that never see more than a day of 25F. Even the poor wildlife and birds didn’t have a chance.

  • Grew up in semi-rural Indiana, and could expect two or three times a winter that we were without electricity. An overloaded branch brought down the wires, usually the phone too. We had an all electric house, with a fireplace. The power outages were usually fairly short, only a half day to two days, so we didn”t really suffer, and we kids had fun sleeping in the living room before the fire.

    Another time we lived in a rental place where the electricity went out, but we still had gas. This time I was a father with children. I bought a couple of pottery (made of clay, orange colored) flower pots about 10 inches in diameter, placed them over burners on the gas stove. As I remember, I didn’t even have to turn the burners on high, yet the clay flower pots gave off a lot of radiant heat. I suspect they would work to augment the heating from an iron wood stove too.

    For showers, I haven’t tried it myself, buy new, never used, sprayer used to spray bug poison. Fill it with hot water, then use it for the shower. Why new? You don’t want residual poison in your shower water.

    Good article and good comments.

  • I’ll tell you why the Texas grid failed. RENEWABLES!

    Nearly a quarter of our grid is either windmills or solar panels. The Valentine’s Day freeze was a black swan event. We have had colder days in Houston (it was 7° back in January 1982, when we were heated by gas and coal).

    Why does Texas have so many of these eggbeaters and panels? Tax breaks and federal grants. They started in the Clinton Administration and then-governor George W. Bush signed on. He liked the idea so much he expanded it (and Rick Perry took it to the next level). And Greg Abbott still continues to encourage these boutique energy sources when he should be encouraging nuclear and gas.

    This will happen again. Was it worth a few billion in incentives?

  • My husband and I made it through the Great Texas freeze of 2021 with no problem. We live northeast of Houston.

    The city of Houston and surrounding areas were warned way ahead of time to prepare, but many waited to the last minute before doing so or didn’t bother. Most people have only themselves to blame.

    We use a wood burning stove to keep our whole house warm. My husband starts bringing wood onto the porch in late fall whether we use it or not. All outside pipes are wrapped at that time too.

    My house is all electric so when the electricity goes out we have nothing. Many years ago we bought a 1929 stove/oven combination which we had changed over to propane. It cooks great. I can also cook on the wood burning stove but would rather not. We prepared for this type of weather when we built our house. My husband and I grew up in Texas and we have seen 10 degrees quite a few times.

    When we heard the weather forecast, the first thing we did was take a trip to the grocery store to get extra milk and bread. My husband later went out and added more wrapping to the outside pipes and more insulation to the well house. After that, we just cranked up the wood burning stove and stayed warm. I washed and dried all my clothes before the storm hit, so I wouldn’t have to do clothes during the freeze. I also cooked some before, so all I would have to do is warm up.

    The only thing we realized we didn’t have was oil for our oil lamps. We had plenty of candles though.
    Since then we stocked up on oil, wicks and candles. I bought a couple more oil lamps also.

    We were very fortunate. Our electricity is from a small co-op and we went through blackouts that would last about an hour or two, and then it would come back on for about an hour . Our water well did fine because of a heat lamp, a well insulated well house and dripping water. We also have co-op water. It helps to have two sources of water in case one goes out. We used a small propane heater in an area where we do have pipes in the attic. Thank goodness heat rises. With older propane heaters, you have to be very careful and continually keep an eye on them. The pipes in the attic are also well insulated. Most of our water pipes for the house are in the foundation.

    We are very grateful that we made it through with no problems, so we could help our friends and neighbors who didn’t. There were quite a few.

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