Blue candleI’ve been thinking of making a move for the last year or so. My current house, at 1780 square feet, is much larger than I need. The idea is to find a smaller house, in a smaller town. Property taxes should be lower, the cost of heating and cooling should be lower, and if it’s done right there should be savings in the time it takes to keep it clean and tidy. Classic case of downsizing.

A career as an Industrial Designer has taught me that you really have to think complex project like this through. There are pitfalls and traps at every decision point. Whether you are building new, or planning a deep renovation, it’s necessary to put on that design and engineering hat and think about all the details that go into creating a place that’s a joy to live in, and keeps you safe. Last night, I got a reminder about serious issues that are easily overlooked.

At about 10:30 pm there was a power outage. Now I live on the south side of Charlotte, inside the beltway, in a 30 year old neighborhood. There are some good things to be said about that. Crime is low, although we get an occasional armed robbery in nearby shopping areas. The area is stable, with plenty of trees and a nice atmosphere.

One thing we don’t have is completely reliable power. I suspect that Charlotte is not worse than many other cities in the US. We get two or three short blackouts every year, and usually one longer one, defined as 4 hours or longer. There was the ice storm of 1996 where more that 600,000 people lost power for multiple days. Some folks were without power for 10 days. There was another ice storm in 2002 that left more than a million people without power. In that case power was almost completely restored within a week. In both of those instances I was lucky and only suffered relatively minor problems.

I’ve lived in southern California and had to deal with rolling brownouts on hot days. I lived in Connecticut for a year in the late 80’s and had a two day blackout. You soon realize there’s a reason every house in that area had a fireplace. When I got back to work I was told that having at least one serious blackout every winter was par for the course. Maybe I’m being harsh in my judgment, but in the twenty first century, this is unacceptable. My standard for comparison is Melbourne, Australia, where I lived for 14 years. I can’t remember a single long term outage during that time. To be fair, Melbourne doesn’t suffer ice storms.

There’s a reason that Charlotte’s power provider, Duke Energy, is often referred to as the “Duke of Darkness.”

I can’t see any reason why living in a smaller town would be any better than Charlotte. So being able to be safe during a multiple day power outage should be a serious design consideration. And that’s where the problems begin.

When the power goes out, the first thing you need is an emergency light.  Can’t troubleshoot in the dark.  If the block or neighborhood is down, you have to be able to find your way around.  Candles may not be a desirable option in a modern, thermally efficient house.

In a modern house built to the 2012 IECC code, it will stay comfortable year round with very little power input. Part of the reason is that it will be airtight, or nearly so. But there’s a price to be paid for high energy efficiency. It means no open flame inside when the power is off. The ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilation) system is not turning over the air, even a candle will eventually use up all the oxygen.

That means carbon monoxide detectors with serious battery backup. It also means at least some windows that open for ventilation. It has me thinking that a few solar panels would have value beyond keeping the monthly electric bill down.

Last night’s experience also has me thinking that an LED flashlight makes a perfectly adequate emergency light.  The issue is locating the light when it’s pitch dark.  As luck would have it, I had bought a couple of cheap LED flashlights at Harbor Freight my last visit there, and that paid off handsomely last night. I had one close by, so no stumbling around in the dark.

It would be a really good idea to keep a mini light in every room. Maybe even build in a little flashlight compartment, perhaps with a tiny LED locator, with a battery backup, so you can find it in the pitch dark. Easy access to a mini light would make dealing with the Duke of Darkness so much easier.

Thoughtful details make good design, which makes life comfortable.


Quote of the Day

Customer: “Hello? My computer’s power just died.”

Tech Support: “Ok. Is everyone else’s computer in that room working?”

Customer: “Yes.”

Tech Support: “What were you doing right before it went out?”

Customer: “I plugged my curling iron into the power strip.”

Tech Support: “Really? What else is plugged into there?”

Customer: “Well, my radio, my space heater, my cup warmer, my printer, my monitor, and my computer.”

Tech Support: “Did you unplug anything to plug your curling iron in?”

Customer: “Yes, my space heater.”

Tech Support: “Well, unplug the curling iron and plug the space heater back in.”

Customer: “Hey! My computer is working now! Is there something wrong with the power strip?”