August 21, 2003
If there's cold beer in your fridge
(E. Quinn, Power)
Last Thursday, fifty million North Americans experienced first hand what it's like to live aboard a small cruising boat; when the sun set, they found themselves in the dark. Despite initial fears of terrorist attacks and widespread anarchy, the power outage in the northeastern United States and southern Ontario proved to be little more than an inconvenience for most citizens, and provided several days' worth of stories for the news media. A week later, however, we're still in the dark as to the exact cause of the failure. The only thing that seems certain is that North Americans consume a lot of electricity, perhaps more than the utility companies can reliably supply.
When the lights went out we were ashore in Sag Harbor near the northeast end of Long Island, New York. The historic town was filled with tourists, everyone with a cell phone glued to his or her ear. It took a while to clearly establish that the problem wasn't a localized glitch, but a much broader power failure. Some of the stores on Main Street closed because their cash registers and credit card processing machines were dead. Not the ice cream shop. The place was packed and the staff were scooping cones as fast as they could. The owner's frenetic movements betrayed a certain sense of desperation; he was no doubt imagining the imminent meltdown of his inventory. Traffic chaos wasn't an issue since there aren't any traffic lights in Sag Harbor (the congestion at the Long Wharf intersection is always impenetrable on a busy summer afternoon). We were ashore mainly to take in the sights, having loaded up with provisions before leaving Rhode Island a couple of days earlier. The prospect of an extended power outage didn't really affect us except that we were hoping to take in a movie at the local cinema. With the evening showings cancelled, we returned in the dinghy to the anchorage east of the town breakwater.
We tuned the short wave radio to the CBC six o'clock news and fired up the propane grill. The blackout was the one and only story on the Toronto news broadcast. We enjoyed our dinner in the cockpit listening to woeful tales of stranded commuters, overheated apartments, and overheated politicians blaming each other. As darkness descended around us, it became evident that the ornamental "gas" street lamps in Sag Harbor rely on electricity. The only sources of light on shore were the mega yachts tied up at the inner harbour docks. Overhead, the stars burned brightly - probably the brightest they had ever appeared in the memories of most Sag Harbor residents.
Life returned to normal pretty quickly in the days following August 14th. With some notable exceptions (like the Toronto woman who was trapped by a mammogram machine), few citizens in the northeast were severely traumatized by the great power outage of 2003. An evening without lights, television, and air conditioning proved to be a novelty for most of those affected, maybe even a bit of an adventure. (We suspect, however, that after a few days the novelty would have worn off as people began identifying with how the great majority of the developing world's population lives.) Probably the most significant impact of the recent blackout is an enhanced awareness of the degree to which we rely on electricity.
Unlike most of our land based counterparts, we are continuously aware of how much electricity we are consuming on board "Little Gidding". Our lights, cabin fans, radios, laptop computers, fridge/freezer, and navigational electronics are all powered by a bank of 12 volt batteries. At the push of a button, a digital metre in the galley tells us our net electricity consumption at any given moment, and how much juice we have "left" in the batteries. An analogue metre indicates how much power is being produced by our alternate energy sources. David has developed a nervous twitch; he can't help pushing the button on the digital metre whenever he passes through the galley. On a bad power day he's prone to say something like, "If we learned how to read Braille we wouldn't have to turn the lights on."
Brownouts are a constant reality for liveaboards unless they're plugged into a dock. A battery can store only so much power; if you take out more than you put back in you'll eventually run out of juice. We consume an average of about 100 amp-hours of power per day. At that rate, we can go for about two days without charging our batteries. After that, the lights begin to dim and David sounds like Mickey Mouse when he transmits on our high frequency transceiver. By far, our biggest battery drain is our fridge/freezer, followed by our computers. We've converted our incandescent cabin lights to more energy efficient fluorescent and halogen bulbs. We supplement these with oil lamps (especially if the weather's cool). The radios draw most of their power when transmitting; we keep our conversations short. Our cabin fans are amazingly efficient, using only a quarter of an amp-hour of power.
We depend mostly on our wind-powered generator and solar panels to charge our batteries. With fifteen knots of wind, the wind generator puts out around nine or ten amps, which is more than twice our average rate of electricity consumption. Unfortunately, we can rarely rely on a fifteen knot breeze for 24 hours a day, especially in anchorages where the main point is to be protected from the wind. Over the years we've added to our solar panel array to compensate for the shortcomings of our wind generator. We now have eight panels on top of our cockpit bimini and dodger producing a theoretical total of 204 watts of power. That power figure assumes clear skies, overhead sun, no shadows, and cool temperatures. Under ideal conditions at high noon, the panels should produce about thirteen amps (in practice, we're lucky if we see ten amps).
Mostly through trial and error, we've improved our generating capacity and adjusted our behaviour so that we're now self-sufficient in energy. In a typical month, we consume as much electricity as the average Toronto household uses in a day (see our April 17, 2003 entry, "Conserving While Cruising"). If we were buying this amount of power from Toronto Hydro, it would cost us about a buck. Instead, we've invested in a lot of expensive equipment and David has become a power consumption neurotic. But "Little Gidding" has never experienced a blackout.