When The Grid Fails – Experiencing the 2013 Toronto-Area Ice Storm

I thought apocalyptic scenarios sounded like opportunities back when I was a teen. Not in a “hope it happens” sort of way, but rather in a “if it did happen, this is how I’d rock that situation” way. I would be a one man survival machine, optimizing the situation for my own benefit.

Now that I’m established and have the responsibilities of a family, my perspective has changed dramatically. Now I’m more the typical “change is scary” sort.

Movies where the protagonist has responsibility over a child are much more stressful to watch now. Even those obnoxious brats in War of the Worlds (just eat a damn sandwich!).

So it’s quite unpleasant when the power goes out for 72 hours, as it did early this week. A storm dropped 3cm or so of ice, overloading most trees to the point of collapse. As they collapsed the legacy above ground power and communications system took a serious beating, with many downed lines and even poles.

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It was clearly a mess that would take a while to sort out. Not an apocalypse by any grossly exaggerated hysterics, but quite a disruption of the norm, especially in the days leading up to Christmas. To make it worse an atypically cold weather front was moving in.

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This was a very regional event here in the Greater Toronto Area, so of course we could have packed up and headed elsewhere, including to family 150km down the road, but a few things made that more complex than it might at first seem.

  • We’re a relatively large family. With the trend towards small families, we would be like an army invading in most homes
  • We have a large dog. We obviously wouldn’t leave her behind.
  • My daughter has a bearded dragon lizard. We had to keep him comfortable and warm, which then kept my daughter happy.
  • It was the days leading up to Christmas Eve. My kids were going to enjoy a normal as possible of a Christmas day.
  • As an incidental concern, the power was out for my large rural area, and many communications lines were down. It was a burglar’s dream.
  • The temperature forecast was for temperatures down to -20C (less than 0F). Simply shutting down the house would have led to damage that would be covered by insurance, but it is certainly not something I would want to deal with.

All of these are things that make us less agile in those circumstances. So we planned out how to stay in place and wait out the power restoration as comfortably as possible.

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To go back for a moment, we live in a rural area of the city, where properties are acres, water is from wells, and so on. One of the reasons I liked this house was for self-sustenance reasons, with a huge cistern and large capacity well, and a fireplace to theoretically heat the house in the case of situations just like this.

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I learned a lot from this situation. Things that will prepare us for the next occurrence. And there will be a next occurrence: we have become so perilously dependent on Just In Time everything of a multitude of external resources that society has become much more perilous than many of us are willing to admit. Whether is a Stuxnet style attack by rogue players against distribution systems, a worse case of a systemic defect such as what occurred in the North East power outage of 2003, or mass infectious disease (SARS pt 2, bird flu variants, etc): The people who make the systems that we rely upon might not prioritize work when contact with other people can be a death sentence and they have their own families to care for.

I’m not saying this in a survivalist, fear-mongering “Prepare to drink your own urine and shoot at invaders” manner, but rather from a “it’d be nice to make it as minimally disruptive as possible when stuff goes down” perspective. And society in general would certainly operate better in departure-from-the-norm situations if we didn’t all rush to empty every gas station and store to have the basics for survival.

We already had a 2600W generator from a one-day power outage during the summer, thankfully avoiding the thundering herd that occurred at every hardware store as hundreds of people streamed in for a couple of available units. We used that to keep the lizard’s heat lamps going (which incidentally heated the room, so it wasn’t lost energy), the fridges cooled with all the trappings of a large Christmas dinner we had scheduled to host, and chargers for various pads and smartphones. It’s a pretty small generator, but still it ate through $40 of gasoline a day.

Having those electronics devices made the experience much more tolerable for everyone. I could make some trite claims about going back to the basics and all, but when you are accustomed to on demand information and entertainment, it’s nice when people can wrap themselves up and be entertained.

We live off a well but its pumps were hard wired, and nonetheless have a very high start-up power draw that would certainly overload the generator, so water — including to flush toilets — was in the form of bottles stockpiled for the water dispenser.

I had the remainder of a face cord that I’d bought a year earlier, largely for cosmetic fireplace burns. I put in an order for another and remarkably the vendor got it to me before I ran out.

We did okay and it wasn’t an entirely unbearable experience. By the end the house temperature had dropped to about 6C, despite the fireplace being on constantly, so we’d retreated to heating just one small room with an electric heater for the kids. I kept in contact for work related issues via the thankfully still operating Rogers HSPA+ signal out here, the cable and DSL internet both being down for the duration.

Things we learned-

  • We need a transfer switch added to our electric panel, with an external hookup. Having a myriad of dubious extension cords carrying 15amps+ just wasn’t safe, and it didn’t allow us to power those hard-wired things like the pumps. I was not going to resort to the illegal and dangerous double-male plug into an outlet.
  • We need to get a much larger generator. A 7500w Honeywell is about $1400 on Amazon, and will be an upcoming purchase. That would accommodate spikes while still using largely the same amount of gas for low loads. It does make me wonder how cars play a part in micro-grids and disaster scenarios as newer hybrid vehicles add large electrical generators.
  • Traditional fireplaces are close to useless as a heat source. We had suspected this already from experience, but this pounded home that point: Despite feeding it endlessly, it did surprisingly little to heat the environment, instead simply sucking the limited warm air in the home out, pulling cold out in any draft point. A wood-burning insert is going to be installed as soon as possible, dramatically improving the efficiency (apparently in the 9x more efficient range).
  • A well insulated home is still a heating nightmare when you have limited sources of heat. I could feel the cold pouring forth from the double pane windows, and every door was a villain seeping in freezing air. Again, from a traditional efficiency perspective this house measures up quite well, but standards dramatically change when you’re working with the least.
  • Barring some technology revolution, my next laptop will be a Mac Air. Perhaps I just don’t learn, but yet again I bought a Dell based upon the promise of a battery life that it can’t hit 50% of in actual, marginal use. Having a laptop that can’t go an hour and a half without recharging is an enormous pain when power is limited and inconvenient.

Anyways, a bit of a diversion from the ordinary. It was an interesting experience.