Vacation-home destinations like the Hudson Valley are often prone to power outages. Photo: Harry Gillen
Our little weekend place up the Hudson Valley is nestled in a heavily wooded area, with mature trees lining the small rural lanes. It’s idyllic. Lovely, even.
It’s also an area that has long been prone to power outages. Those old trees and their big branches stretch out over and along the roads — and the power lines along the roads — are susceptible to coming down whenever there’s wet snow, icy rain or heavy winds. All of which are common during the long dark winter months.
That’s why we anticipate every winter storm with a mix of appreciation and dread. It’s going to be beautiful in the morning — a winter wonderland. But it also may mean that trees and branches fall on power lines and leave us, and our neighbors, in the dark. And the cold, since our furnaces need electricity to work. And without water, since our well pumps need power, too.
If there’s a storm coming, we’ll make sure our phones and rechargeable lanterns are charged up, and we know where to lay hands easily on our hand-crank flashlights.
Photo: Hayden Scott
We’ll try to stock up on food that is easily stored without the refrigerator or freezer: snacks or meals we can eat straight out of the package. We’ll put a few perishables in a cooler, to be kept outside the door, in the cold, so we don’t have to open the fridge door as often. We’ll also plan some simple, basic meals we can make in the fireplace, like hot dogs. We would fill up the bathtub with water we could use to flush the toilets.
If the power outage begins during the day, we know it immediately. The lights go out. The electric clocks blink off. The radio goes silent. The fridge stops humming.
When the power goes out in the middle of the night, which is when outages generally start, we notice it because of all the noise outside: the various growling, humming and whirring of our neighbors’ gas-powered generators. The generators are typically loud enough to wake us up, especially if we’ve been sleeping lightly because of the coming storm.
Photo: Dima Solomin
Backup generators, we quickly came to learn when we moved to our small lake community, were a popular topic of discussion whenever local residents got together. A mix of full-timers and weekenders, they all seemed eager to compare and contrast their backup systems, and to collect or offer advice on the best kind of system to get: how much power, fuel oil or propane, and especially manual or automatic.
The most basic option was a small generator on wheels. When an outage struck, residents could roll it out of the garage or basement, plug it into the home’s electric grid, and fire it up to provide power for as long as there was gas in the generator. If an outage lasted more than a day or two, they might have to go out and buy more fuel for the generator.
For many of our neighbors, that basic option was too basic. At the opposite end, the top-of-the-line systems provided automatic backup that was built into the house’s operating system. When the power went out, the backup power, typically fueled by a couple of substantial liquid propane tanks outside, would kick in within seconds. Nobody had to plug anything in. Nobody had to throw a switch. Residents might notice a brief flicker of interruption to the power in their house.
For years, we were unusual among our neighbors for not having a backup power system. Of more than 200 homes on or around our lake, we knew of only two other houses that did not have backup generators.
“What?” incredulous neighbors would demand at neighborhood gatherings. “You don’t have a backup system? How can that be? How do you manage? What happens when the power goes out?”
“Well,” we would explain self-assuredly, “we’ll hunker down with blankets and we’ll make a big fire in the fireplace. We’ll make toast and roast hot dogs in the fireplace. And if it gets too uncomfortable, we’ll just go back home to the city. The power will be on there.”
Our self-assuredness disappeared during the pandemic. We fled the city for what we thought would be a few days, and as our exile stretched from days into weeks we experienced a series of storms — and power outages. The first one was a day and a half, most of it during daylight hours, and the outside temperatures were in the thirties, thankfully, rather than in the tens or lower. We spent an inordinate amount of time in bed, turning in early and sleeping late, snuggling deeply under the warm covers.
It wasn’t totally comfortable, but it was easily survivable, and kind of an adventure. Not exactly fun, but certainly a good source for dinner-party stories with our upstate neighbors and especially our city friends.
“You’re like pioneers,” more than one city friend marveled. We nodded in smug agreement.
Our smugness disappeared during the next storm, which knocked out the power for three full days. The novelty of preparing meals in the fireplace wore off by the second day. We had dug out all our silk long underwear and piled on all our wooly sweaters, but we were still weary of shivering.
We made it until the power came back on, but our adult daughter, who had joined us from her own city apartment to ride out the worst of the pandemic, had some points to make.
“Tell me again why we don’t have a backup system.”
“What is the point?”
“You’ve said the basic backup systems aren’t that expensive. So why are we going through all this inconvenience when we don’t need to?”
She was right. It didn’t make sense not to have a backup system during the pandemic when we had nowhere else to go. I began doing research.
I quickly rejected the idea of buying one of those squat, noisy, foul-smelling backup generators that are rolled out of the garage. Those typically sell for a few hundred dollars into the low four figures. We decided we’d spend a little more for an automatic backup with the propane tanks outside the house. The estimates turned out to be for quite a bit more, into five figures when the expenses of a permit and hiring an electrician to do the wiring and rewiring.
The backup system we settled on had hardware that would go both inside and outside. The outside unit was the size of one of those large air conditioning units you see outside small apartment buildings or big houses in the South. “How noisy will it be?,” we asked the electrician who was planning our installation.
“It will be totally quiet,” he told us, “except when it’s working. When it’s working it’s pretty loud.” We talked to neighbors who had similar units and they confirmed, yes, it was loud. “But we have lights and heat,” they said. “It’s worth the noise.”
We didn’t want to put the unit right outside our bedroom, so we decided to pay more to put it on the far side of our stand-alone garage, across the driveway. We’d barely hear it. But it would be much closer to our next-door neighbors’ house. And those neighbors happened to be one of the two other households that did not have any backup generator.
When we asked them whether they’d mind having the unit so close to them, they said they would. There are plenty of places you can put it, they very reasonably pointed out, without putting it as close to their house as we could.
We thought about it. We didn’t want it next to our house. It wouldn’t be right to put it next to theirs. The whole idea stalled while we thought about it. And we did more research.
We stumbled on an alternative — not a generator, but a large backup power system. A big battery, basically. Tesla and other companies that deal in powerful batteries offer a range of backup systems that aren’t as powerful as gas generators, but will provide backup power for hours or days.
A Yeti portable power station. Photo: Goal Zero
We settled on a system called the Yeti from a company called Goal Zero. We chose one of the larger backup systems, not the largest, but not one of the smaller ones that are favored by campers and construction or yard crews using them on site. The cost, the installation by our electrician, was about $4,000.
We were given lists of how many hours different appliances would run on the Yeti when the power went out. Appliances that used a lot of power, like a stove or fridge or space heat, would last only a few hours. The lights in our house, on the other hand, would stay on for days.
We calculated that by parsing out the power to different appliances we could live near normally for a couple of days — unless the temperatures were so cold that even a roaring round-the-clock fire in the fireplace was enough to keep us from going back to the city.
By then the pandemic was easing enough that we were occasionally going back into the city, very cautiously. Also we were encouraged by the responses of the local power utility during that three-day outage; we figured that if there was a next time, they’d be able to respond and get the lights back on more quickly. On top of that, meteorologists studying the Hudson Valley seemed to think that those kinds of three-day storms were going to be increasingly unusual.
Our electrician had never dealt with electric residential backups, and had never heard of Goal Zero and Yeti. But he said it was an easy, quick, straightforward installation, and he did it for us. We wheeled the Yeti, about the size of a small rollie bag, into a corner of the pantry and plugged it into the wall to charge. Within a few hours, it was good to go.
Over the past two-plus years, we’ve had several outages. Three of them were for minutes. By the time we turned out in the Yeti and plugged it into house circuits, the lights were back on. Several of the outages were longer, but none for more than 12 hours. In each of those cases, the Yeti worked as it was supposed to. We had lights, radio and internet. We turned on the fridge a couple of times for a couple of hours each time just to keep everything cold. The temperatures outside were never lower than the forties, so the fireplace kept the living room toasty.
My one regret with the Yeti is that we were unable to add the solar panels that Goal Zero offers. We just have too many trees and too much shade. I would have loved to wheel the Yeti out into the driveway to top it up.
Some of our neighbors are curious about our electric alternative. “Yeah, but it’s not really a generator, is it?” some say. No, it is not. And no, it will not go forever, as long as we keep it gassed up. It has limits. It is also cheaper than the big generators, and a lot greener.
I ran into the electrician a few months later, and he asked how the Yeti was working. Great, I said. And I asked him if he had installed any other electric backup systems.
Indeed he had. “I’ve been recommending them to people,” he said.