Hidden Fragility - What Happens When The Electricity Is Off For Three Days?

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith via OfTwoMinds blog,

What happens when an electricity dependent society and economy has an extended loss of electrical grid and communications?

One of the hidden realities of modern life is its fragility. For example, few people are aware of the precariousness of the supply chain that refills gasoline/petrol stations around the world every few days.

A new book, When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation explores the fragilities of our truck-dependent supply chains.

Longtime correspondent Bart D. (Australia) recently experienced a multi-day regional loss of electricity. His first-person observations help us understand what breakdowns in energy are like on the ground.

*     *     *

Observations of life in an extended power failure by Bart D. (Australia)

South Oz is continuing with its streak of extreme weather. The latest being our encounter with what's being described as a category 2 'hurricane' with the added bonus of a severe front preceding it that produced many low-grade tornados. A score of major power transmission towers were twisted off their footings, 80 000 lightning strikes fried out a lot of 'secondary' electricity infrastructure ... 40% of power that is usually being generated from wind had to be shut down due to extreme winds and base load backup generators failed in many locations (including my region).

Power 'gradually' returning after blackout plunged state into darkness

End result ... entire state without electricity for a day and a half. Some regions, including my home region, (about the size of the state of Tasmania) were without electricity for 3 nights and 2.5 days.

It was a fascinating opportunity to observe firsthand what happens when an electricity dependent society and economy has an extended and complete loss of electrical grid and communications.

Key observations for my local area are:

1. Many people have small petrol generators thanks to our lovely coastal wilderness and a preoccupation with Glamping (Glam Camping)

2. Very few people had a store of petrol at home more than 5 to 10 litres. (usually kept for use in lawn mowers, brush cutters, chainsaws). Some owners of small boats had up to 20 litres on hand.

3. When the electricity goes out ... the pumps at fuel stations don't work. To my great surprise, only 1 fuel station in my nearest city of about 14 000 population had (or quickly acquired) a back-up generator to work their fuel pumps. There was a 3 hour wait for customers to get from back of queue to the pumps ... and a ridiculous show of 'bulk buying' where people didn't just take fuel that they personally needed; they showed up with between 3 and 8 X 20 litre (5 gallon) fuel cans as well as filling their cars. Hopefully the canned fuel was distributed among family and friends. (My assertion is that the owners of the station should have rationed fuel to 40 litres per customer to keep the que moving faster and to make sure everyone had some, rather than creating an 'all or nothing' situation)

4. Due to the difficulty with getting hold of petrol after the blackout started ... almost everyone with generators at home could only run them for a few hours over the course of the entire blackout. Even then, the small camping gensets usually lacked the capacity to run large modern refrigerator/freezers. So ... most people lost the contents of their fridges by the end. Due to cold weather, at least freezers stayed cold for the most part.

5. Big shops had their own gensets ... but they can't power the banks of chillers for meat and dairy ... so these items became unavailable by the evening of the blackout starting.

6. The full loss of grid, grid back-up and other smaller backups caused telecommunications and data transmission to practically cease. This meant limitations of EFTPOS in stores. Banks were shut, ATM's didn't work and some shops that were open could only take cash. Generally though, everyone muddled through the sketchy electronic payment systems one way or another. Internet access failed for the most part. Social media pretty much collapsed ... my two daughters though their social lives were over. I didn't miss it. My wife found more time to do other things too.

7. The items that disappeared from the shelves fast, and were tricky to find after 24 hours without power were : Bread, D cell batteries, 6 volt square batteries, matches, heat beads, butane gas cans, fresh meat, sandwich meats, cheeses. (not sure about bottled water - most here have rain tanks anyway). Everything else seemed fine, although fresh fruit and veg got limited after 48 hours.

8. In hardware/camping stores that managed to open: bottled LPG quickly sold out as did BBQ's, camp stoves, camp lights and batteries to run them. Most here have a gas BBQ at home, but if you didn't already have a full bottle of gas ... it was very hard to get a replacement after 48 hours.

9. No one here knows how to use a road intersection properly when the traffic lights are out! I think this helped create major gridlock in the states capital but was even noticeable here at my much smaller regional city with just one such intersection containing lights. (public education urgently required on this)

10. The number of back-up gensets at critical locations (including hospitals and communications systems) that failed was disturbing. There needs to be a major inquiry into why the back-ups on critical services failed. This nearly caused a shutdown of mains water supply as our water is pumped out of aquifers and has to be lifted to storage tanks high up in the hills. More of a problem for sanitation than drinking, as rain tanks are common here.

11. Then there were a few people like me ... I ran my big 'workshop' genset 7 hours a day (hour in the morning, hour at lunch time, 4-5 hours in the evening) and was burning about 7 litres of fuel a day in doing so. My home fuel reserve meant I could run at that extravagant level for a month if need be, or supply others who fell short. We ran refrigerators, lights and TV almost 'as usual' and offered to charge anyone's batteries who needed it and supplied a small camping gas burner, full cylinder of gas and a good battery powered camping light to my parents-in-law who were seriously underprepared. The rest of my small home town (located 20km from a regional city) was rather dark and quiet for the three nights (in part due to the lack of pre-stored fuel to run camping gensets).

12. We have a gas stove in our kitchen, with bottled LNG that lasts 3 -5 months in normal use, so cooking was as normal for us. Since we didn't try to use the gas to also heat washing/bathing water it would have lasted for the usual amount of time.

13. When most were having cold showers, no showers, wasting their BBQ gas to heat pots of water or crowding into friends and relations who had LNG hot water systems in their houses ... our family had hot baths by candle light in huge volumes of wood heated water. (Picture of my old wood heater below.) It is very efficient, made in the 1940's I think, but possibly much older. The inner bowl is copper and absorbs heat from a small fire lit behind the square opening in front. It can boil 70 litres in 20 minutes from a cold start, or 15 minutes for a refill of water once it's already been going a while.

14. Apart from the fuel distribution fiasco everything remained orderly, people remained calm and helpful and life went on. Strangers were a lot chattier with other strangers than usual ... which is good to see. I saw examples of shops extending 'unsecured credit' for small amounts of basic food items to people who had no cash on them and whose cards didn't work. No looting, no "Law Enforcement" out making trouble and plenty of sharing and cooperation.

15. Although about a quarter of houses have solar panels or solar thermal hot water where I live ... none of it worked as it's all grid connect AND doesn't work under the heavy cloud/rain/cold of a 3 day storm.

I've been thinking about getting 'stand-alone' solar power (ie connected to my own batteries) since they closed the big coal fired station in the north of my region, (and the price of these systems has become quite affordable). Our region is at 'the end of the line' of our state grid now and I expect regular outages this summer when hot, calm conditions prevail that reduce our wind generation output at the same time as spiking power use for air conditioners. Our electricity now has to travel up to 1600km (1000 miles) from the state of Victoria to reach us when the windmills aren't working here!

*     *     *

Thank you, Bart, for sharing your observations. The resilience (or lack thereof) of complex systems is difficult to assess until there are atypical strains placed on the system.

What seems effortlessly resilient on average days can break down dramatically if redundancies, proper maintenance and crisis response have been stripped from the system by incompetence, budget cuts and/or the self-serving priorities of managers and employees.

As a result, we only discover systems have become fragile and brittle in crisis, when it's too late to restore resilience.

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1980XLS's picture

Negroes go wild.

It has been well established with historical precedent. 

38BWD22's picture



More important, what to do...

-- water and/or water production

-- food as above

-- guns & ammo

-- PMs, well hidden

-- Stay healthy


Start preparing now.  Inauguration is only three months away.


Cognitive Dissonance's picture

"More important, what to do...

-- water and/or water production"


As we learned the hard way several years back, if you have a well and you lose electricity, no power means no water. So we purchased a deep well hand pump.

Problem solved.

Your backup should always be (much) lower tech than your primary system.

We also have a whole house backup generator, but no fuel eventually means no power means no water.

And if the batteries are low on the solar panel electrical system, no power means no water.

Stuck on Zero's picture

When the power went off in Southern California for half a day there was no panic. No riots. Neighbors emerged from their houses and went for walks. Everyone started barbequing in their driveways. New friends were made. The whole place became nicer and friendlier. I don't know about three days but in general people become nicer when conditions get worse. To me, nothing ruins human nature faster than apparent prosperity.

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

It has been said that we are all three meals away from chaos and collapse. I say as soon as the toilet doesn't flush, panic sets in.

When you have to chose between drinking the bottled water or pouring it in the toilet to flush it, that's when things get tough.

While most cities have emergency generator backup for their water and sewer systems, at most that backup is good for a week or less. Particularly if the region is down and it isn't just a local/city event.

JRobby's picture

Chaos, starvation,  disease,  death.

Fill all the tubs with water for toilet flushes. Stockpile 3 months of water and food. Camp stove and gas if you don't have or can't afford a generator.

30 gallons of gasoline if not 50.


Cognitive Dissonance's picture

I built a gasoline storage area far away from the house and outbuildings to help prevent fire or explosion from destroying everything I have. I try to keep at least 50 gallons on hand (usually 70) and rotate the stabilized gas to keep it as fresh as possible.

Oldwood's picture

I have my genset running on natural gas. I'm honestly not sure about how long that will last under any extreme circumstance but always assumed it would last longer than gas or diesel supplies would. I have been considering building some wood gasifier systems to supply my genset as I have endless supply of firewood, but its just one more project to do as no one actually builds and sell wood gasifiers.

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

Up here on the mountain in southwestern VA, I'm not sure if a gasifier or a still is more important.

Maybe I can run the genny of what comes out of the still? :-)

Oldwood's picture

The trick is to have a system that is multifuel...without an engineer to make it work. My system will work off both compressed as well as natural, but it consumes about 12 gallons of compressed gas an hour, so that didn't seem long term sustainable as I would need massive storage tanks. Running a 100kw with a chevy 454 engine...HOG.

Luc X. Ifer's picture

this will happen, do you think it is a fucking joke?!



Calmyourself's picture

Pri-D and Pri-G for stabilizing fuels everything else is inferior.

Fourmyle's picture

Just got a multifuel carb for the main genset , LPG, NG and gasoline. A few 100 Lb propane tanks will run the set for months using a timer to start and monitor current for a shutdown, and can still use gas or shine as available. Seemed like a good $50 investment and propane keeps as long as the tanks don't leak. Yes building and programming a micro controller is probably too high tech, unless you already do that anyhow, but they are very good at keeping time and all it takes to watch the power being used is a couple of ferrite rings on the main leads as current transformers. Power drops below some arbitrary setpoint and you aren't running pumps-compressors so can shut down. Can always use a wireless remote for "on demand" uses too, after switching the place over to local power.

That said, also just had a 24 hour outage two days ago,  and didn't even fire it up, freezer was fine and fridge was ok as an "ice box", batteries did need to get swapped out on the UPS running the cordless phone and charging the laptop after 10 hours. Over all only change to my life was running around helping neighbours set up gen sets. As an observation, if someone is certain that they can't start a gas motor with a pull starter, and will not try, then they really can't.

flyingpigg's picture

I use 20 litre steel jerrycans to store gasoline. Just make sure to fill them with ethanol-free gas because the ethanol attracts water (see water-phase separation). In the US it's available at most lakes for boating. In Europe, the 98RON is usually ethanol free (except in UK).

northern vigor's picture

Store high test gasoline...the ethanol mix is crappy after a month in a can. 

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

Not all high test is ethanol free. In fact most is mixed with it just like the other grades.

Thankfully up here in farm country, many of the gas stations carry high test that is ethanol free because many farmers have old tractors and other equipment that can't use gas with ethanol.

I always buy the ethanol free high test and then stabilize it because you never know how long the gas will set around before being used.

If there is an emergency situation, don't forget your cars have gas tanks in them. Pick one car/truck to use. Salvage the gas from the rest.

For this reason we have a rule on the Cog household. We consider half a tank of gas to be an empty tank of gas and ALWAYS refill at half empty.

Except when Mrs. Cog forgets. :-)

Casey Stengel's picture

Hey Cog, Mrs. Stengel and I are traveling for my work and adopted the practice of 3/4 tank = time to fill up. Her car will get us back up the mountain on one tank of gas from anywhere I'm working. After we get to the home 40 we're ok. She has been prepping for an EMP type event. A case of water and Cliff bars in the trunk at all times. And yes...... TP. ;-)

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

Nice to hear from you Casey. Sorry to hear you must do some traveling for work. Then again, you expected you would need to do so. Hopefully the industry comes back soon. Be well, stay safe, keep the faith.

Dragon HAwk's picture

tubs won't hold water long, best trick to beat that is a box of trash bags, fill the bags in the tub and put tie wraps or string around the neck facing up. fill the tub that way and the water lasts a lot longer, also pots pans jugs and buckets, also trash cans, work with a trash bag liner it's potable.

PTR's picture

And a lifestraw.  Great for when the rain barrel is "it."

oddjob's picture

If your house has a sewage lift you're fucked from the get go. What's worse is houses situated next to sewage pump stations, when these stop working everybody up the line keeps flushing and it comes out your fixtures.

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

Mrs Cog and I were living in a townhouse 5 years ago. We had both been talking about "Oh Shit" moments for several months and how to prepare.

I mentioned to Mrs. Cog that if the power went out and the local sewage treatment plant went down, there was no way we could flush our toilets. And that 'things' might back up.

The look that came over her face was priceless. Within a few hours she was on the internet looking for a place to move that had its own well and septic system. The rest, as they say, is history.


northern vigor's picture

Funny...Mrs Vigor is much the same with with plumbing. She has several years worth of tp stored here.

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

Don't get me started on the TP.

The other day while in Sam's stocking up, Mrs. Cog informed me we were almost out of TP. I took her at her word and we picked up several large bundles.

When we got home and were putting it away in the basement, I realized we actually had at least 15 very large packages of TP on hand. She said in the most innocent voice that we were running low.

Mrs Cog had punked me. :-)

WakeUpPeeeeeople's picture

A sponge on a stick makes a good back-up for tp. Worked well for the Romans.

all-priced-in's picture

It is now legal to dump your shit on the street - just ask Hillary.



PTR's picture

A few years ago while vacationing in Door County, WI, there was a once-every-50-year kind of storm that went through, knocking down trees and power lines and shutting off electricity for 18 hours.  The community pulled together.  Neighbors were helping each other clean up, the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store started giving away all the frozen and cold perishable food items to whomever (versus letting them spoil and go to waste) and the hotel swimming pool and ice buckets became the new toilet flushers.  As soon as I got home, I bought a solar/crank charger, backup battery for USB-pluggable devices, and made sure the emergency backpack (Thank you, Hedgeless Horseman) came with us every trip.

hibou-Owl's picture

Most backup generators do have regular tests, but normally just run the motor. The issue comes when its needed under load as fuel systems block due to condensation or electricial problems.
My hybrid solar PV provides power on cloudy days as its oversized, only need 10% output. Water is from a well, and we are on spetic sewerage.
Today i dug foundations for two off/grid tie wind turbines,
So bring it on!

Could supply neighbours, just isolate the top wire off the fences, 240v barbed wire.

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

Have you selected your wind turbines yet? It's a different set of problems and some different equipment tying it into your battery bank.

I'm still not there yet. But will be soon.

IronForge's picture

You two may need to install auto-turrents for pepper spray, pressurized water, rubber/real bulltets when the regional Gangs and thugs try to go "Mad Max" on you.

I know Mr. Hedgeless has gunned up.  Have you two?

I'm planning on maintaining a residence overseas, so I'll "Prep Up" when I'm at my future Promised Land.

Lumberjack's picture

Your domestic hot water tank has a drain at the bottom you can use in the event potable water is needed.

If it's gas heated tank, shut the gas off at the tank before extracting the water. If electric, please shut the circuit breaker off for same. Do not turn on heat source until water supply has been restored.

WillyGroper's picture

ewww, bacteria.

went ng tankless after i saw what came out of mine...hard well water.

trade off tho.  must descale every 6mos.

ljag's picture

Unless, of course, you wrap your supply line with fridge magnets

WillyGroper's picture

magnets & smart meters/emf don't mix...especially for me.

i go to lengths to charge my ro water via orgonite adding ionic minerals.

not about to add that to the equation.


btw, not the dinger.

Hitlery_4_Dictator's picture

That was a huge wake up call for me, traffic backed up on the HWY IMMEDIATELY. All gas pumps stopped working, people ran out of gas right away because they drive their cars with no gas in them. People were trying to get gas in a different county and the lines were unreal. There were reports of water gouging within an hour. That was only for a power outage for half a day. DO NOT FOOL YOURSELF. I got the hell out of So Cal. and cities in general. 

Escrava Isaura's picture

Do you want a wakeup call?


Article: When trucks stop running

When trucks stop running America is finished. Good luck finding any squirrel or cat to eat.


Hitlery_4_Dictator's picture

When people have nothing left to lose, they lose it. BTW I live next to ranchers and farmers....I don't care about trucks...

Escrava Isaura's picture


But tell me that, do you live off the grid? No cooking. No refrigeration for your food.

Does your farm need fertilizers and/or any type of pesticides?

Can you farm without any oil whatsoever?

How about disease, or if you have an accident? Can you fix a broken bone yourself?

And I could go on…………………..But why bother.


Hitlery_4_Dictator's picture

I can make it with our refrigeration, ranchers by me breed cattle, don't need anything fancy for that. Simple medical stuff we can take care of.  Don't forget, you will need massive amounts of Iodized Salt if you are sweating a lot or live in a hot environment. Get at least 10 lbs per person. I personally like to chug pickle juice. 

northern vigor's picture

What will you trade to the farmer for a bit of his cow? Farmers are friendly sorts until hordes start coming up the driveway in a shtf situation.


Hitlery_4_Dictator's picture

LOL many things but I am also friends with them.

Casey Stengel's picture

This is the part that my bug-out compound friends don't get. I tell them to become friends with their neighbors and develope a reputation of BEING a good neighbor before an emergency situation occurs. 

Nekoti's picture

What do you suggest? Everyone just give up and die?

Oldwood's picture

It's almost a freaking miracle we made it for thousands of years until we discovered in the last hundred or so, what we could not live without.

WillyGroper's picture

you got some homework to do.

fire for cooking/heat.

battery for refigeration.

most here do w/o ferts/pests.

oil...thats some back breaking labor.

PTR's picture

And battery to start fires, too.  (Thank you, Les Straud.)

HockeyFool's picture

"power went off in Southern California for half a day there was no panic" No shit? That's because everyone had enough supplies to last 1/2 a day. What would happen if the power was off a week? I guaranfuckingtee that there would be rioting. And no new friends would be made. The whole place will be a fucking war zone.

Nekoti's picture

Lost power for a week when the remnants of hurricane ike blew through. Never really bothered me except for the kids whining.