As the UK says goodbye to its bitterly cold easterly and snowy first half of February, the United States plunged into deep winter with snow reaching down to Texas and the Gulf coast. There has been a huge freeze. Dallas fell down to -19C, it would usually average +15C and this wasn’t a short-lived low dip. The state power grid failed and then the water supplies.
This caused massive problems for regions that do not experience this kind of cold or low temperatures. Here in the UK when that very cold night was on the way (Aberdeenshire did drop to -23C) we were warned and told to 'protect outside taps'. Many, I’m sure, thought it will be okay and just left it.
In social media posts from the US, there have been icicles hanging from the ceiling fans as pipes burst, a frozen water stream from a supposedly dripping tap and cascades of water in homes with nearly 3 million people in Texas still without power on Wednesday 17th. The extra surge in electricity demand was higher than in the peak heat of summer for air-con. Warming stations are being advertised, places for people to gather and stay out of the worst of the winter weather. The ongoing blackouts in Texas are mainly due to frozen instruments at gas, coal and nuclear plants with limited supplies of gas and little wind for the turbines,
The burst pipes and so many people leaving taps dripping to help them not freeze meant that there was little water available in places. And no flushing toilets. With temperatures still sub-zero the power outages, now supposedly on rotation, and water supply issues continue. This has meant no heating, no lighting and for many no way to cook or warm food.
Denton, Texas had a power outage and had to repair both water treatment facilities. The city’s supply of water reached “a near critical low” and so they had to tell residents not to drip their taps overnight. When it gets this cold, a key bit of advice is to leave a tap dripping really slowly, ideally, one far from the water tank and this keeps the circulation moving and so less likely to freeze solid. However, such was the cold that outside taps and exposed pipes stood little chance and even indoors pipes failed as the heating stayed off and ice appeared on walls and water bottles froze.
British Gas aren’t as convinced by the dripping tap theory calling it a myth “In fact, leaky taps can cause your drains to freeze and water to back up to your sink, leading to an overflow. “
For many who live in the southern states, there is little need for winter clothing such as a big coat usually and certainly not all-weather tyres which some people do fit here in the UK. There were traffic pile-ups in the snow and ice, flight cancellations and some people had to leave their homes to head to offices or hotels in search of whatever warmth they could find. In the US they use Fahrenheit, so 17F is about -8C, a record from Corpus Christi INT breaking a record from 1895.
On Twitter people from more northern states or Canada were offering winter advice, how to sit out the bitter cold at home and the power outages but still stay safe. The southern states are just not used to it. Depending on where you live in the UK your level of preparedness for a power outage will vary. Teenagers will instantly worry about their phones and the Wi-Fi, adults the next meal and the freezer contents (don’t open your freezer unless you have to, it will last well) but being cold is miserable and it is dark for hours at this time of year. Switching to survival mode and bearing in mind the 2018 Beast from the East wasn’t until the end of Feb/early March -
Top tips for surviving at home in bitter cold and a power cut.
Chose one main room to spend your time in and sleep, ideally away from the wind. You’ll need to move furniture to outside walls, an extra layer. Get mattresses, cardboard, newspaper, clothes, blankets, yoga mat etc as layers to lie on. If you have a little popup tent that is also ideal.
Close the curtains and blinds, windows let a lot of heat out. Hang blankets over windows too if you have them spare, bubble wrap is great too. When it is sunny, let that sunshine warm the room. A small indoor space heater, if power for it, should come into the room. As long as the heater is safe.
Roll up towels to block all doors and windows and any other draughts. Your body heat will warm that room. Whilst the inside taps were slightly dripping the advice was also to open under sink cabinet doors
A terracotta pot and tea lights can create a small heater. Candles near to a mirror give off more light. The use of candles will depend on the other inhabitants of your room. Do not fall asleep with them lit. Those battery-powered strings of lights are good, find your torch and extra candles, the matches or a lighter before the power fails. A head torch lighting up a big milk container full of liquid gives off a great light.
Clothing- loose-fitting layers are key and a hat. Keep your hat on but don’t get too warm and sweaty, the dampness will work against your warmth when you sit or lie down. Live in thermals, that’s leggings and top. Don’t restrict your circulation though. Get socks right and gloves or even better mittens. Something for your neck like a buff or a snood makes a real difference. If your feet get wet, change the coverings and tidy away long wet, snowy hair.
Pets- bring into main space too and if they have a coat, find it. Cover fish tanks with blankets. What about litter, you are trying to reduce trips outside?
Food - If the power is off and fridge not working, could you store the food safely outside in snow? Make sure you keep eating, if that is ongoing snacks or managing to heat food. Gas ovens may still work, camping stoves even a BBQ but nothing that will give off poisonous fumes. Two people have already died in the US from carbon monoxide. You should use your camping stove inside a tent so don’t use it inside a house.
The gas rings won’t heat the air very well but boiling big pans of water will make a difference. Keep water in other pans in case the supply or pipes break. You’ll need to keep hydrated so sipping not cold water is important for everyone or you will begin to feel ropey. A water bottle each helps. Don’t let anyone eat snow or ice water, they will get very cold.
Mild hypothermia can occur indoors after prolonged exposure to low temperatures. The elderly and infirmed have a heightened risk.
In the 80s, when heading away from the UK for a bit of winter sun, you would turn the water off. Do people still do that, drain the pipes? I can picture clear ice outside on a wall, high up where something had burst once. In our warming climate, these severe cold events will happen less frequently. Does that mean that when they do occur ( and they still will) we won’t be prepared or know what to do, like the Texans?
I have found the main water tap (the stopcock or stop valve) in my house and it was very difficult to shift. YouTube is an amazing thing, don’t just hit it with a wrench, there is a knack to loosening it. I did cover the outside tap when temperatures in SE Scotland fell to -8C for one night, with a home fashioned polystyrene block. I think I found the tap for that too in a kitchen cupboard but I’m saving that investigation. Still recovering from fixing a dripping tap, the highlights of lockdown living.
Winter preparedness without the survival aspect, for here in the UK.
Get your boiler serviced regularly and sort insulation, there are grants available. Lag exposed pipes with that grey foam stuff. It can be efficient to leave the heating on low for longer, rather than fluctuating the settings rapidly in a cold house. Draw the curtains at dusk.
If pipes do start to freeze they can stop your heating and hot water from working well and if they burst, there will be leaks, even flooding. There are lots of tips if the water supply is going a bit funny and you think somewhere is frozen but not yet burst.
If there is a leak, you need to turn off the water supply (hence worth knowing where it is and that you can shift it) and turn off the central heating. You can empty the system by running all the taps but then turning them off and possibly turning off the electricity if the leak has reached the electrics. Then you’ll be in the dark and cold situation too.