Tonight's Forecast: Dark

Japan's weather never ceases to surprise me. It is, in a word, "changeable".

October's weather has been beautiful for the most part, with the exception of the terrible double-storm that sank three ships on the sixth. And then there was last Tuesday...

It seemed like replay of the 6th, but not quite as strong. Monday night was windy and rainy. I put the blanket cover over Momo's house. Fortunately I had already installed her winter "door" - a cloth flap that keeps the wind and rain out. The storm went right over Kashima City, soaking us, but nearby Hokota was left almost dry. Looking at the weather radar image I was reminded of a scene in the movie comedy "Galaxy Quest" (a spoof of Star Trek). Crewmember "Guy" looks pensively at his screen and says, "There's this red thingy, and it's coming toward this green thingy, and I think the green thingy is us!" - just as some big space weapon hits the ship. In our case the "green thingy" was Kashima, and the "red thingy" was a big cell of very heavy rain, and red meant 31mm (1.2 inches) of rain per hour.

Winds were blowing 25 mph with gusts over 35, and rain was flying horizontally, though again not as bad as the earlier storm. Just after 11:00 am, the electricity went off and stayed off for three hours. No lights of course, no refrigeration, no internet. But that isn't all. Most people in first world countries don't plan for such occurrences and the systems used in homes are not designed for such a contingency. It was a good lesson on what not to do when I build the house in Fiji where there are no public utilities (at least not on Taveuni).

I must say, the electric utility people here were kind enough to drive through the neighborhood with a loud speaker notifying everyone that they were on the job and to please be patient. I sometimes think "customer service" is the national motto of Japan.

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Behind our house - workers endure wind and rain to get the power back on.

You may think I am going overboard here, and that Taveuni is an extreme example that has no bearing on life in Japan or the USA. Yet, the US electrical grid is very susceptible to widespread power outages that cover entire regions of the country. An ice storm, a branch on a wire, a little manipulation by Enron, and several states with millions of people are suddendly, well, powerless.

Japan's reliance on gas to operate power plants is a weak point that became glaringly obvious recently when Russia halted work on the Sakhalin II gas and oil project, which was to supply 8 percent of Japan's gas needs in 2008, and at the same time the USA pressured Japan to back off from buying energy from Iran in preparation for...something. Hopefully these things will turn out to be temporary. Otherwise, in two years time Japan may have to go begging to China for natural gas. Good luck.

Even without the consideration of its dependence on foreign energy supplies, Japan gets typhoons, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, and so on, all of which do interrupt services to homes, sometimes for long periods. Do I need to mention hurricanes to my American readers?


Back to our storm, in addition to the obvious items that didn't work without electrical power, the following things also could not function in our house. Some may surprise you:

1) Water. Our water supply comes from a well and the pump is electrical. There is no PV panel charging a battery for backup, no gasoline engine, no water tank. After the pressure in the small reserve cylinder is used up - a matter of minutes - there is no more water to the house. Even after a short time, the inconvenience becomes irritating - can't wash your hands, can't wash food, can't wash the dishes, can't flush the toilet. Oh, my.

2) Solar water heater - a moot point without water pressure, but the solar system does not function without power for its own water pump and control panel.

3) Backup water heater - we have auxiliary hot water from a tank-less kerosene heater. Again, without power for its control panel, sensors and pump, it is useless.

4) Space heater. Happily the weather is still relatively warm and heat is not needed. Many homes in the US use central gas heating. No electricity, no heat. Most kerosene room heaters in Japan require electricity to operate the control panel and circulation fan. (I bought an old style non-electric one last winter for exactly this reason. As an added bonus, one can boil a kettle of water on top of it in case the gas range doesn't work).

5) The gas range. What!? Well, as this was a short power outage, I could still cook lunch, but our range too has electronic controls and ignition. They operate on two D size batteries. Ever go to use a flashlight and find that the batteries are dead? If there were a "real" emergency or long outage the range too might become useless. Not to mention the negative environmental impact of those types of batteries.

In contrast, commercial airliners are designed with backup systems, and there are backups for the backups. The consequences of a system failure are more dire in a plane obviously, but I really think house systems should be engineered so that loss of one element doesn't shut down everything.

We don't often experience a flat tire on the car (though I did have to change a tire earlier this year) but that doesn't keep us from carrying a spare, does it? Compared to the inconvenience of not having a spare, carring one in the trunk is nothing, even if we never use it. Same idea with what I'm talking about here.

Semi self-sufficiency

In the Fiji house, we will us PV panels to charge a bank of lead/acid batteries. Our power needs will be far less than a US or even Japanese home as we'll use LED lighting, ultra-efficient refrigerator, and do without most common appliances except for a clothes washer.

The range will be propane and will be lit with a match or mechanical spark. A back up wood-gas stove will be on hand if gas supplies are interrupted.

No heater required, thank you.

Water heat will be solar, designed to circulate without electrical assistance or need for backup heat. There is an excellent one being built in Malaysia, called "Micro Solar" which is being used in places one would think unsuitable for solar water heating, such as England, and they work quite well.

Water will come from the Taveuni Estates water system, which is gravity fed. As homeowners there tell me the system is less than perfect (ahem), I will also have rainwater catchment system and a large storage tank. No pumps required.

In the mean time...

OK, so that's well and fine if you're building a home from scratch, but what about the one you've got? We don't own this home and don't want to invest in a lot of new equipment. Here are some things to insure your life isn't disrupted when the power is:

I don't want to get into gasoline-powered generators because of the cost and the dangers to yourself and utility workers if you hook one up to your house electrical system.

1) A lead acid battery pack for the well. Doesn't have to be solar, it can charge off the regular utility and provide a temporary backup for a day or so. If you're on a public water system you may or may not have water service in a given emergency, so....

2) Plenty of bottled water on hand. Not 1-liter bottles, I mean tens of liters (several gallons) of it, for drinking, cooking, and simple washing. Enough to get by for a couple of days. We keep 16 liters of drinking water and 10 liters of multi-purpose water (probably should be much more).

3) Dried and canned foods. When the wind is knocking down trees and powerlines, and the rain is flooding the roads is not the time to go grocery shopping.

4) A hand crank/solar radio. I have an inexpensive one that gets AM/FM, shortwave, VHF, weather, and TV bands.

5) A hand crank flashlight.

6) A good book, board game, or perhaps your favorite (non-electric) musical instrument...

7) A bottle of wine ("get da red kine" as Aunty Marialani says) to enjoy with dinner by candlelight.

That's not so hard, now, is it? While your neighbors are sitting in the dark grumbling, you'll be having a nice evening. You may even decide to turn the power off yourself once in a while!


Happysurfer said...

Pandabonium, haha.. you are all set then. Great planning.

I saw in the news this morning that certain parts of Scotland are flooded and saw a man scooping water out of his car. Very soon, east coast of Malaysia will also be experiencing flooding. This is a yearly affair when the monsoon hits.

Pandabonium said...

Maybe not all set, but I do hate it when I'm NOT ready and something happens. And as they say, "stuff" happens.

Stay dry and safe.

PinkPanther said...

Ha..ha..Coincidentally, I got a present (A hand crank flashlight) lately from my brother-in-law in Vancouver.

It's helpful, no battery needed and can call for help as a signal.

Pandabonium said...

Nice present. I keep one by the bed. I need it whenever Momo barks in the night, and I got tired of buying batteries.

Don Snabulus said...

That's a good primer on why those things are important. Home Power magazine has lots of good info. on home solar, wind, and water electric systems. We subscribed for a year and really enjoyed it.

Martin J Frid said...

Glad to hear that you survived the storm. How is Momo...?

Water and dried foods are good things to stock especially in the case of a major earthquake. And stay friendly with your neighbours, you will need their help in an emergency (and they will need yours).

Pandabonium said...

Momo stayed in her house all day and was warm and dry.

I read somewhere (maybe your blog) that in planning for the "big one" in Tokyo they want each building to be capable of being self sufficient for three days. Good idea, I think. It is going to happen someday.

Amen to being neighborly. We share our small amount of fruit with neighbors and K bakes them bananabread. We are often given vegetables. Momo has made us lots of friends too. Just being friendly with people will make a difference if the time comes when you need to pull together.

YD said...

nice concept! reducing our dependency on single source of energy is good just in case it goes dead and leave us helpless. =)

i haven't come across a hand crank radio, it's time to go have a walk in DIY shops... and with all these hand crank tools, you can exercise while surviving too!

Pandabonium said...

YD - the crank items are easy to turn and as they have a rechargeable battery in them, you just crank them for a couple of minutes and they work for half an hour or more.

Reena said...

Ah well, coming from a 3rd world country, power outages from 9am to 6pm is common in summer ! So yes, we keep ourselves well equipped. Most of the ppl who can afford it have a UPS, overhead watertanks, so that we are never short of water even if the pump does not work, water heating could be a problem if there is no solar water heaters but out here we can really manage since the weather is not cold at all, and we use LPG (liquid petroleum gas) cylinders for cooking, and we usually have a spare one, so we never run out of gas!!!!
So when we heard that there was a power outage in the US, sometime last yr or the yr before that and that the city came to a standstill we actually found that REALLY strange! :) Sorry for rambling but just giving you a perspective..

Pandabonium said...


Thanks for that perspective. It helps emphasize my point. Just in the last day, several states in the northeastern USA had a power outage and there are thousands of people without electricity in New Jersey now.

It is odd to me that while we usually have about 3 months worth of gas for the range (just the two of us here), we would not be able to turn on the range without batteries. Well, I'd be able to, but the range would never be the same. ;^) I consider that kind of engineering to be stupid, quite frankly. There is no excuse for such short-sightedness.