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In a massive winter power outage, how would Minnesotans heat their homes?

REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang
Minnesota’s emergency preparers haven't thought much about home heating security.

I didn’t really plan to buy a home with an “octopus boiler” — a cast-iron leviathan whose asbestos-encrusted tentacles writhed through my basement. You could open what was once a coal hatch and peer into the belly of the beast, where a gas flame roared.

As hearthy as it was, the octopus was staggeringly inefficient, and I eventually replaced it with an ultra-high-efficiency computer-controlled boiler. Our gas usage plunged 20 percent, and all was well.

Until the power went out. In the dead of winter.

Turns out the octopus-era me had been warmed in a state of blissful ignorance, one of a dwindling number of Americans whose heat is not dependent on the electrical grid. Though my power outage lasted only a few hours, my home’s temperature plunged, and it scared the crap out of me. No one told me that efficiency’s trade-off was hypothermic risk.

According to Standard Heating President Troy Gregory, “For all the old octopus’s shortcomings, one positive was that all it needs is gas to keep operating. Unfortunately, with any system on the market today, you need both gas and electricity.”

In general, gas — which relies on buried lines — is more reliable. For example, in 2011, CenterPoint reported 27 gas service interruptions to state regulators. Xcel? 230.

One need only look at Hurricane Sandy to see risk realized and writ large. Thousands lacked electricity for weeks, frozen out of their homes in the late fall. Minnesota’s hurricane risk is laughable, but as extreme weather events soar, it isn’t hard to imagine a something like a giant ice storm wreaking havoc.

Minnesota’s emergency preparers haven’t thought much about home heating security. Minneapolis Emergency Management Director Barret Lane was “not aware of anything being discussed in the realm of emergency management around changes to boiler technology,” according to a spokesperson. Counterparts at three state agencies concurred.

There’s an objective reason for the complacency: Minnesota’s electrical grid has been pretty reliable despite the interruptions.

Keep in mind that while a house initially cools down fast, it’s a matter of “days, not hours” before you have to worry about pipes freezing, Gregory says. So how many day-plus outages does Xcel have? From 2008 through 2011, precisely 179 — affecting a grand total of 1,789 of its 1.2 million Minnesota customers, the utility says.

Mix in the odds of such outages happening on a frigid day, and you’re forgiven if, like policymakers, you’re unworried about the risk.

Full prepper

But let’s say you’re like me: a guy resigned to being the appetizer course in a zombie apocalypse, but full prepper at the possibility of a black swan freeze-out.

My first solution would likely be yours, if you have gas stove: grab the sleeping bags, manually light the oven, and open the oven door.

Unfortunately, Xcel frowns upon this. “The burning of natural gas produces carbon monoxide even when the over door is closed, and when the door is opened the CO is released into the kitchen and can build up to dangerous levels in the home,” says the company’s “Winter Outage Tips.”

(I suspect desperate, hypothermal homeowners will risk it, but you’ve been warned. Remember, your CO monitors stopped working in the outage.)

CenterPoint’s solution requires foresight and several thousand dollars: “We recommend having a natural gas fireplace for backup heat,” says spokeswoman Rebecca Virden.

A gas company recommending another gas appliance? Might seem self-serving (guess what the propane industry recommends), but there’s some logic and no small amount of irony.

Unlike your gas stove, the fireplace vents, so Mr. Sandman probably won’t provoke a permanent CO snooze. The irony is that the fireplace functions like a modern octopus boiler: some models still have standing pilot lights, which federal law prohibits in new boilers and furnaces.

Becker Fireplace Center owner Jim Eiynck says 90 percent of his sales involve a different, pilot-less technology known as ISI. Basically, a battery backup lights the pilot … if you remembered to stock batteries!

If you want to be off both the gas and electric grids, wood fireplaces are an option (though some kick out less heat) as are wood or pellet stoves. You’re still spending thousands of dollars putting one in, and you’d better stock enough fuel.

Batteries and generators

It’s tempting to think you can keep your heater’s brain running with the sort of cheap battery back-up you might have for your computer.  However, there are all kinds of problems here.

First, unlike your computer, your furnace doesn’t plug in. Unless your electrical skills are sharp, you’ll need a pro to hard-wire your system. Second, your furnace or boiler almost certainly has motors to push the air or water around, and those require more power than your computer.

Bruce Angeloszek, an East Coast installer doing land-office business in Hurricane Sandy’s wake, has put in battery backups charged by the grid (before an outage) or solar power. However, he says they’re far more expensive than fossil fuel alternatives.

“People who buy those from me are usually preppers or survivalists who don’t care financially and don’t want their neighbors to hear a generator and know they have power,” says Angeloszek, who notes Connecticut has suffered three black-swan outages since 2011. “I’ve had people offer to pay me in gold bullion.”

He estimates the cost of a whole-home solar-battery backup at $18,000 to $25,000 — on top of what you pay for a conventional solar install. You can limit the cost by only powering a few things, or hoping non-battery solar provides enough furnace power during the day to get you through the frigid night, but the initial cost is still high compared to anything running on dinosaur juice.

The other issue — which infuses the entire array of electric backups — is producing power that won’t fry computer circuits. “You need a clean sine wave,” Angeloszek explains. “People out here tried inexpensive generators and they didn’t have heat for long. You have to make sure your portable generator has an inverter if you have electronics on your heating system.”

And you still have to get portable power to the heating unit. Angeloszek favors a slick device called the GenerLink, which lets you plug your portable generator into the electrical meter, which already feeds your fuse box. You’d flip the switches to your heating circuits (and whatever else you could power) and be warm as long as the fuel holds out.

Problem is, while many Minnesota electrical co-ops allow the GenerLink, Xcel doesn’t. Curt Van Sickle, who runs the hydronics department for a large Minnesota home-seller, recommends the Interlock Kit, which does nearly the same thing in a few more steps via an exterior plug-in.

Again, you need a pro to do this — not just for your own protection, but to avoid “back feed” that can fry electrical-repair workers. Parts are several hundred dollars, and Angeloszek estimates install at around $1,000, on top of whatever you fork out for the portable generator.

For true paranoids, the crème de la crème is a permanent automatic generator. These natural-gas or propane-powered puppies — long used by businesses — automatically feed your fuse box when the power goes out. Residential models are hard-to-find nationally post-Sandy (Home Depot is back-ordered for weeks on the popular Generac models). Should you snare one, you can expect to pay $10,000 to $15,000 for a whole-home unit plus installation.

If it all sounds depressingly expensive, now you know why we rely on networked grids. For now, I’m pricing winter-camping equipment and figuring how how to drain my home’s pipes.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Bob Collins on 01/18/2013 - 10:19 am.

    Buddy Heater.

    Buddy Heater.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 01/18/2013 - 10:56 am.

    gas fireplaces

    My furnace went out last fall and while not cold by MN standards it was a problem. Fortunately I have 2 gas fireplaces which kept 2 rooms at 90 degrees and the bedrooms warm enough for a couple of weeks. I would agree the gas fireplace might be the least expensive of the mentioned options and fortunately my house came with them already installed.
    I like the buddy idea but trying to actually get some sleep might be tough.

  3. Submitted by David Koski on 01/18/2013 - 11:03 am.

    Good Article

    I appreciate your investigations into back-up heat in case of a long term power outage. I used to do furnace and air conditioning service work, so I know it is not always easy to explain.
    Fortunately, in my house I do have a gas fireplace insert with a standing pilot. The gas valve is operated by batteries.
    Speaking of fake fireplaces, I remember working at a wise renter’s apartment in Minneapolis. She had an electric fireplace for backup heat if the central heating boiler went down. Which it did generally twice a year.
    Deep freezes can plug gas lines if there is enough moisture in the line.
    Which leaves me to this question. Does IKEA furniture even burn?

  4. Submitted by David DeCoux on 01/18/2013 - 11:19 am.

    Kind of warm

    I have wondered about this many times. How would the general populace fare if power was out in Mn for a few weeks to a month during the winter, or both gas and power were out.

    The thought is chilling.

    Only partially related, I have two wood burning fireplaces, a couple cords of wood, and a propane heater for my garage.

  5. Submitted by Eric Sandeen on 01/18/2013 - 11:30 am.

    Insulate & seal

    Another reason to build & retrofit homes to be energy efficient. A well-sealed, well-insulated home will stay warmer, for longer, with less supplemental heat in an event like this.

  6. Submitted by John DeWitt on 01/18/2013 - 12:21 pm.

    Thinking ahead

    Although I live near the U in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood, I’ve been without power for several days (once four days) more than once. I’ve heard that electric utilities have cut way back on the number of emergency crews available. This may work if damage is localized, but if there’s widespread damage, it will take a long time to get power back for everyone. In the most recent case, we were in a group of just 8 houses that lost power so we were essentially at the bottom of the list.

    The circulation pump on my boiler uses just 70 watts so my plan had been to use an inverter hooked up to my car battery to get a few hours of heat as needed. But now I’m wondering if that power would be clean enough for the boiler electronics.

  7. Submitted by L.A. Krahn on 01/18/2013 - 01:08 pm.

    “New” home features help

    I agree. In planning our very rural home, my husband and I thought about this constantly: what if…
    During my formative years, a January 1977 ice storm hit and multiple generations packed into grandma & grandpa’s farmhouse because despite the electrical grid being down a week, they had (1) a hand-pump well, (2) a summerhouse boiler that could burn wood for heating water and cooking as well as heat MOST of the house, and (3) oil lamps and candles. Retro resiliency!

    So we designed a super-efficient and super-insulated house; the weak points are it depends on the grid for geothermal in-floor heating, lighting, refrigeration and operation of the water well. For resiliency, the fireplace is wood-burning, stovetop is propane (can be lit with a match) we break out the candelabra, and have neighbors with generators who offer us freezer space. The test came on July 1 2011 when a forest blow-down cut the grid to our neighborhood for six days: house stayed pleasantly cool, made coffee with a french press, and ate/cooked everything that was thawing and couldn’t fit in a cooler. But we quickly used up all the rain barrel water in flushing toilets, and had to hoof it into town for potable water. Our next step this spring is a neighborhood- use hand-pump well & more rain barrel capacity, plus we “can” (preserve) more and freeze less.

    In winter, the biggest issue is one of us would have to stay home to stoke the fireplace.

  8. Submitted by Justin Heideman on 01/18/2013 - 01:36 pm.

    My house has a pretty old boiler form the late 60s, without a circulation pump (hot water rises). I am pretty sure that I can fire the boiler manually without power, since there is a pilot, but the thermostat wouldn’t work. Thanks for writing this as a reminder to make sure I test that out (on a day when we’re not heading into a long cold snap).

    It would appear from watching this video at This Old House that fully draining your pipes without electricity is pretty hard. How else do you get the water out of a dishwasher line or washer line?,,20315602,00.html

  9. Submitted by Kelly O'Brien on 01/18/2013 - 02:21 pm.

    Keeping my original furnace

    Thanks for the further motivation to keep my ca. 1905 gravity furnace going. And don’t forget that if you still have a landline with a phone that plugs into an outlet, that will go down in an outage too. So I keep a ’60s-era desk phone in the house just in case. (Yeah, I know we all have cell phones, but in a real crisis the grid tends to fail for those too.)

  10. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/18/2013 - 08:13 pm.

    Figures that the govt. would kill a solution

    Oh no, a standing pilot light! Thankfully our future electricity will be provided by wind and solar power right at our homes so we won’t need to worry about lacking electricity. The Big Buddy Heater is the way to go as long as you have a 20 lb. propane tank handy. Don’t burn wood, it causes global warming and kills the neighbors with their windows open because they’re using their ovens to stay alive.

    • Submitted by Simon DeRuyter on 01/19/2013 - 02:35 pm.

      Its good that the gov’t is banning the sale of new appliances with standing pilots. Besides the efficiency factor, pilots are dangerous, because they blow out, and the gas doesn’t shut off when that happens.

  11. Submitted by Simon DeRuyter on 01/19/2013 - 02:28 pm.

    Rather than spending 15-20 Grand on these systems for something you are likely to ever need, why not spring for a gasoline powered generator,(you can get a decent, somewhat quiet used one for $500) run a couple of extension cords into the house and have a 2-3 of those $50 oil heaters to plug in? Its certainly enough to at least keep the house heated in an emergency for a few days by just running it occasionally, like every 4-8 hours depending on the efficiency of your home.

  12. Submitted by Tony Dodge on 01/21/2013 - 09:29 am.

    Boiler Pump

    Justin hit on something I’ve thought about. We used to have a boiler with no pump also. The water, as it heats, begins circulating through the house. It seems that a couple of pump bypass valves would solve that piece of the puzzle. I wonder how much battery power it would take to power igniter, flue valve and electronics?

  13. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 01/22/2013 - 08:03 am.

    Always have a backup; a cast iron monster will do…

    It has the presence of a kitchen Buddha, a sculptural form from a past era; cast iron with a blue and creme overlay and it becomes a kitchen conversation piece as a stray visitor stops by or a plumber or the gas man passes through, headed down the basement to fix the furnace.

    The cook stove holds a samovar and a couple old coffee pots…and occasionally a framed picture or a poem or a plant…but it works when needed. So on rare occasions when weather requests its use we clear the surface and we fill it with driftwood… in the Spring and early autumn to warm the chill before starting up the big basement boiler/furnace.

    Driftwood is free of creosote or whatever could gum up the chimney so if the heat and lights go out we have at least 2 dozen candles to give light.. Reading by candlelight is neat for short periods; a novelty…but long term, probably lousy.

    And if the windows are a bit old they will guarantee we will not be overcome by by too tight a seal and toxic emissions will find their way out, whatever…so goes another winter day…keep warm and feast on ox tail soup or a rich beef stew and hot scones with marmalade and a rich black brew and contemplate the frost designs on the window…cheers

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