Surviving Extreme Heat and Power Outages

by David Morris on July 21, 2011

We’re to the part of the summer when the heat seems to be one of the big news stories. Conveniently, everyone seems to forget that it gets hot EVERY summer, so it makes good news.

Along with heat comes power outages, primarily from increased air conditioner use. Several cities are experiencing localized and/or regional brownouts and blackouts this week including Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Detroit, and hundreds of smaller cities and towns.

The media loves this time of year. They can interview hot people, talk about where power is out and when it will come back on, and talk about all the people dying and being hospitalized from the heat.

As our population and electrical infrastructure ages, this is going to be a bigger and bigger issue. Throw in a local or regional disaster, and it’s an issue that almost everyone needs to have a plan for.

I want to start with heat related deaths and say that for the most part, they are a creation of the media. It actually makes me mad when I hear talk about people dying from the heat. It’s not only inaccurate, but it plants the idea in people’s heads that they might die simply because it’s hot out. In the majority of cases where people die from the heat in urban areas, the deaths are completely unnecessary and avoidable.  It’s much more accurate to say that these people died from a lack of knowledge, rather than from the heat and a power outage.

Do people die when it gets hot out? Yes, but ask anyone who has deployed to the sandbox, done manual labor throughout the summer, or the millions of people who live in Africa and the Middle East without air conditioning and they’ll tell you that hot weather alone won’t kill you.

Which begs the question, why do more people die when it gets hot and air conditioning stops working? In short, the problem isn’t with the heat as much as people’s inability to control their core body temperature.

One of the first signs of heat related issues is muscle cramping, although that is more of an issue for people who are exerting themselves and not for people who the media claims “died from the heatwave.”

The next stage is heat exhaustion, which is caused by low water and salt levels. It’s exactly what it sounds like…you feel exhausted because it’s hot. In addition, it’s normal to also have headaches, confusion, and cold, clammy skin.

If it’s not treated, the body can “stroke out and eventually die. At this stage, people don’t sweat anymore, their pulse is fast, they feel nauseous or vomit, they’re extremely confused and/or delirious, and may pass out.

It’s important to look for and recognize these signs, both in yourself and those around you. If you’re alone, you can take care of yourself if you’ve got cramps or early heat exhaustion, but if you let things go too far and get heat stroke, your survival depends on someone else finding you and helping you.

Here’s a few things you can do to influence how vulnerable you are to heat related illnesses and death during a temporary power outage:

First, we’ve got sweating. Our bodies rely, in large part, on sweat evaporating off of the skin to cool the body. You want to give the body the tools it needs to be able to sweat as it sees fit.

If you take medication that interferes with sweating or is a diuretic, then you’ll have a harder time sweating.

If you don’t drink enough water, you won’t sweat as much as you need to. I like to drink as cold of water as I can.

If you consume sugar, caffeine, or alcohol, you will need to drink more water or you won’t sweat as much as you need to.

Your sweat contains salt and minerals. If you don’t replace them, your body will enter a low salt state called hyponatremia. When you’re in this state, you feel like you want to die. I would gladly have the worst flu conditions that I’ve ever had for a week than hyponatremia for a day.

All of these factors are more pronounced for the extremely young, extremely old, and people who are chronically ill.

Second, you can make yourself more resilient to heat by simply keeping your house warmer when you use AC. It may not seem like much, but your body will be able to handle 100+ degree temperatures much easier if it is used to 74, 76, or 78 degrees than if you keep it at 68 or even 72 degrees.

It takes a few days to a week for your circulatory system, breathing, and sweat glands to get used to high temperatures. If you’re constantly telling your body that “normal” is 68 degrees, then it simply won’t be able to adapt to extreme temperatures very quickly. But even if your body IS used to 68 degree weather and you get an extended power outage, keep in mind that your body will quickly adapt to the higher temperatures over a few days.

Personally, we keep our house between 74 and 76 during the summer so that we can run easier in 100+ degree weather and so that our kids can play in 100+ degree temperatures without thinking it’s too hot to play. There’s also a benefit of lower utility costs, but the biggest benefit is the freedom that it gives us by not being “prisoners” to air conditioning.

As an example, yesterday I ran 5 miles when it was 102 degrees and 50% humidity. It wasn’t all that bad, simply because my body is not used to 68 degree air and I gave it the raw materials it needed (water, salts, minerals) to cool itself. In addition, I wore loose clothes and soaked myself with a hose before starting my run. I also had a camelback with me that I filled with ice and then water to drink on my run.  Many people would call my steps of using the hose and drinking icewater “cheating”–and they’re right 🙂  Heat and humidity can lower your pace by half or more, and I want to squeeze as much performance out of every beat of my heart as possible.  By taking these extra steps to cool my body while running, I’m able to run at a faster pace while maintaining my target heartrate.

Third, influence your environment. It’s pretty obvious that if you’re stuck in a 100 degree house with the electricity off that you shouldn’t wear a winter coat. Even so, many people don’t take the next logical step of wearing as few lightweight breathable clothes as possible.If you’ve got water and lightweight breathable clothes, the next thing that you want to do is get them damp so that your body doesn’t have to sweat to get the benefits of evaporative cooling. Any time you feel uncomfortably hot and realize that your skin is dry, you should both drink water and get your skin damp.

If you’re moving around, that’s great because you will be creating airflow that will increase evaporation. If you have to sit, try to sit in a chair that exposes as much of you as possible to air. A good example of this is a wicker chair.Unless it’s a lot hotter outside than inside, open windows so that you get a breeze.

If you have access to water that’s cooler than 98 degrees, take a bath or shower. Water conducts heat away from the body 27-30 times faster than air and can help you get your core temperature down quickly.If you live in an area that gets to temperatures that you consider to be “dangerously” hot, invest in some batteries and DC fans. You can get low power 12 volt fans from Amazon or Radio Shack for $10-$60. When combined with moist skin, they can cool you off very quickly.

Powering items during power outages.

And what about powering stuff? Whether it’s power for medical equipment, for cash registers and credit card processing, for computers, or just to run fans, having power during a short term power outage can mean the difference between a minor interruption and a disaster.  I’ve written about this a few times in the past, and I go into detail on the subject in the SurviveInPlace.com Urban Survival Course, but here are a few quick-n-dirty tips.

One of the simplest things, although not necessarily the cheapest, that you can do is buy a couple of 6 volt golf cart batteries and a properly sized inverter. Golf cart batteries are about the same size as car batteries, but they’re made to run things for a long time where a car battery is only designed to start your car for a few seconds and then get immediately recharged. This will allow you to run or charge both 12 volt and 120 volt items, including refrigerators (in the summer), medical items, fans, computers, well pumps, and a furnace blower (in the winter).

You can scale this up as your needs dictate and your finances allow, but I suggest buying batteries in sets of 2 and never mixing batteries of different ages.

You can also scale this up by adding solar, wind, or hand/foot crank generators to the mix to recharge the batteries.

And one trick on your refrigerator…if you change your light bulbs from incandescent to LED, you might just cut the size of inverter you need by 25% or more! Since LED lights are pretty expensive, you can also just remove your refrigerator lights when the power is out.

If you’re in one of the areas being impacted by the summer heat and power outages, what have you done to minimize the inconvenience? What lessons have you learned that you could apply to a medium to long term power outage? Do you have any kind of power backups in place? If so, what kind? Share your thoughts and answers by commenting below.

Until next week,

 

David Morris SurviveInPlace.com

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Vote -1 Vote +1Painful Bed Bug Bites
August 3, 2012 at 1:21 pm

This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally
I have found something which helped me. Many thanks!

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