How to Survive a Crisis like Sandy in the Future (don’t do it alone!)

Good news.  The Robb homestead, unlike a large portion of the northeastern seaboard, didn’t suffer much damage.

We were lucky.  Sandy was massive.  Even though we were FAR from the epicenter of the storm, our area had lots of blackouts, road closures, and fires (transformer explosions).  Fortunately, our home only lost Internet access (although cell phone access still worked) and our driveway had a surprise for us when we woke up:  three large trees were astride it, including a precariously balanced “widow maker.”

As much as I wanted to clear it myself, our town’s crew was faster.  Using a crane, they safely cleared them away by noon, proving yet again that a responsive, mutually supportive community is hard to beat.

In terms of electric power, our home didn’t need to use our backup generator.  Regardless, it was comforting to know it was there and that it would be something that the entire neighborhood could rely upon for support.

Reader Richard, from Virginia, did actually use his backup power system.   His system (which he is in the process of expanding), is a little different than mine.  He uses a bank of batteries that is charged by solar panels.

In addition to an inverter and control system (via Outback Power) to switch and manage the power deliveries to the home in case of a cut off, here’s his description:

a battery array with sixty 3.2 volt 200 amp hour lithium ion battery cells in a 48 volt 800 amp hour configuration that gives me 38.4 KWH of energy storage. Not pictured are the subpanel with all of the house loads that are connected to the system (everything except the air conditioning, the electric dryer, the garage heater, and my welder), or the junction box for the generator. I finished the installation last night – just in time to have my batteries fully charged for Hurricane Sandy. I am my own grid and can island my home in the event that our utility (Dominion Virginia Power) grid goes down.

He’s got some very cool new additions to this system in the pipeline that will allow him to focus more on production than backup storage.  I’m sure we are going to hear from him again.

Surviving Alone

The pictures of the damage Sandy did to the New York area, particularly the damage due to the storm surge, are sobering.

It’s particularly terrible if you realize that New York runs on a rabbit warren of underground infrastructure and most of the damage is being done below the ground (salt water + pipes/wires/etc. is a bad combo).  It’s going to take quite a bit of time before things return to normal.

One thing most people don’t know about New York, and other cities in the developed world, is that nearly half of the households have only a single occupant (single households are 26% nationally, up from 13% in 1960).

Living alone is tough.  It’s particularly tough during a crisis like Sandy.  You need to have people that check in on you, that make sure you have enough to get by.  People that will help you clean up the mess and financially survive the aftermath.   People that have skills and resources that compliment your own.

It’s pretty clear that this trend towards living alone isn’t going to last long.  There is too much turubulence in our future and an increasingly destitute government is not going to be able to meet the vacuum in demand for support.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this problem.  I do know what I have done.

I expanded my home.

There are currently eight people in my home, in three generations.   It’s working out great, and it served our needs particularly well during Sandy.

So, if you can do what I did, do it.  If you don’t have a family, assemble one if you can.

Also, use opportunities like Sandy to connect to the people in your neighborhood. Reader Steve used the recent installation of his whole house generator and the approach of Sandy to build a cell phone network for his extended neighborhood.  He found, as you will find, that with a crisis in the foreground, people that normally would be negative on working as a community, are willing to cooperate.

In general, events like Sandy are a good demonstration of how generous people are, and how willing they are to work together when things break down (they don’t run around shooting each other as some people think).

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  • Jeff


    You might suggest to Richard that when it’s time to replace the lead-acid batteries

    he has for power backup, that he consider getting some nickel-iron/Edison cells

    to replace them. I don’t own any yet, but here is what I’ve found so far:

    Edison vs lead-acid


    1. Edison cell battery will last a lot longer. There are documented cases of Edison cell

    batteries in continuous use for 50 years.

    2. Edison cell battery is easier to maintain. One manufacturer suggest changing the

    electrolyte every 20 years.

    3. Edison cell batteries are physically more robust than lead-acid batteries.

    4. Edison cell batteries can be run all the way down, and then overcharged without



    1. They are more expensive than lead-acid of the same amp-hour rating.

    2. They have a higher self-discharge rate than lead-acid batteries.

    3. They are hard to find. There is one US manufacturer in Colorado, and another

    in China, and others are hard to find.

    The manufacture in Colorado is targeting his batteries to off the grid homesteads,

    where the expense is justifiable in not having to replace them every 5 years like you

    do with lead-acid.


    • Jan Steinman

      Also, Edison cells have higher internal resistance, which means they are less efficient.

    • Reader Richard, from Virginia

      The batteries are lithium ion batteries good for well over 2000 full charge / discharge cycles at full rated power. After 2000, they are good for several thousand more cycles at degraded power levels. If you do partial discharges (e.g. 20% to 50%), you may get 10,000+ charge/discharge cycles.

      For comparison, solar grade lead acid batteries (including AGM chemistries) are really only good for 300 to 500 charge / discharge cycles.

      These particular batteries were in storage for a year but were still fully charged – they do not self discharge much over long periods of time – after 1 year they will still be at over 85% of the charge.

      Like the nickel iron batteries, they are low maintenance (sealed) batteries. They are not as sensitive to being fully discharged (something that will kill a lead acid chemistry battery). However, I have my Outback system configured to shut down at 80% discharge as that will extend the life of the batteries.

      Right now, I’m averaging about 28 KWH per day of usage (October 2012) with a typical daytime load in the 1200 to 1400 watts range (night time is about half this). This is normal usage. If I had to run on batteries, I could probably cut this back substantially since my home office alone uses about 1/3 of my total electric usage.

      As for Jeff’s comments about LEDs – I have already done most of the “easy” energy efficiency investments and have replaced most of the CFL bulbs with LEDs. LEDs are the right technology for lighting to pair with battery systems. They are also a hell of a lot safer than the candles or kerosene lamps favored by many traditional “survivalists” and Amish.

      As for cost, this was only doable because I was able to get the equipment at wholesale megawatt volume rates through an employer and I did all of the work myself. At retail rates and paying a contractor to do the work, I could never afford this.

  • clarence

    there is a manufacturer of nickel-iron batteries in dillon, montana. check out

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