The Hurricane Sandy storm damage here in my Connecticut town was fairly extensive — beautiful old trees are down everywhere, 85 percent of our homes are without power, and officials are saying it will take at least 10 days to restore electricity — but at least our homes are standing. I’ve seen the photos of New York and New Jersey; in our way, we were lucky.
Still, on Twitter, a number of people have suggested that it might be interesting to hear how a tech columnist muddles through a 10-day stretch without electricity and Internet (not to mention heat or hot water).
The short answer is: Pretty much like the other seven million people whose electricity blew out with the storm. You manage.
Internet. Our town has made the public library and town hall available for charging gadgets. The library also offers free Wi-Fi, although I have yet to be able to get online there; the place is mobbed and the network is hopelessly overloaded.
For Internet, therefore, I’ve been using my phone’s tethering feature. My laptop can get online using my phone as a glorified Internet antenna, a service for which I pay Verizon $20 extra a month. And for which I’m very, very grateful right about now.
It’s a little flaky, I’ll admit. It often starts out with superspeed (says “LTE” on the menu bar); then, after five minutes, it drops down to “3G”; and after 10 minutes, it drops down to the little “o,” meaning an excruciating 1984-era, dial-up speed. If I shut down the phone and restart it, the speed comes back.
Power. The problem with using the phone as Internet, of course, is keeping it charged.
Longtime readers may recall that, two years ago, vicious windstorms knocked out our power for six days during a frigid March. When I blogged about it, many commenters expressed shock that I, Mr. Tech, did not own a generator.
Well, trust me, after that experience, I went and bought one — the Homelite HG5000 (it was about $600 at Home Depot). It’s a big, heavy, deafening, stinky, apparently dangerous contraption. (“Using a generator indoors or in your garage WILL KILL YOU IN MINUTES,” says a metal plaque on the top.)
You pour in gasoline, start it up like a lawnmower, and plug in up to six gadgets. It’s horribly designed. Just to turn it on, you have to unplug everything, turn on the fuel valve, pull out the choke loop, turn on the master switch, yank the starter, wait a few seconds, push the choke loop back in, and re-plug your appliances. And all of this seems to be explained in 4-point type on page 41,922 of the Owner’s Warnings Book; electron microscope sold separately.
But I run it for a few hours a day, in hopes of saving the food in the fridge and keeping laptops and phones charged.
As it happens, though, I have two charging devices on hand that are a good deal less stinky. One is the nPower PEG, “the world’s first kinetic energy charger for hand-held devices.” It looks like a plastic piston, about a foot long. Inside is a weight, an inductive coil and a battery. As you walk, your movements charge up the battery; from there, you can charge a USB gadget like a phone or iPad.
The company cautions that you need a lot of motion to do any real charging. You’d have to walk for 26 minutes to make a 1-minute call on the 3G cellular network. Think three-week wilderness treks, not your daily walk to work.
Still, I had a brilliant idea: I’d hang this thing from a tree during the overnight violence of the hurricane. Surely 12 hours of crazy swinging and bouncing would generate a little juice.
Unfortunately, the first step when you open the box is to charge the battery fully from a USB jack — and my power had already gone out at that point. I still did the tree-hanging thing, but it didn’t charge at all. I’ll give it a fairer test once the power comes back on.
I had better luck with the Revolve XeMini solar charger for USB gadgets ($65). It’s about the size of two decks of cards, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: a solar-chargeable backup battery with two USB jacks for recharging your gadgets. (You can also plug it straight into a power outlet or car dashboard to charge its battery.) The company says that one charge will give a smartphone about 6.5 hours of talk time.
All I know is that when our power went out, we were able to charge two phones simultaneously. The phones’ batteries were about 20 percent full and the XeMini powered them both back up to half in a couple of hours. The company points out that the XeMini is billed as a “light-assisted power,” not “solar charger,” because something this small can’t manage more than a topping off, a trickle charge. But I was glad to have it.
Showers. Our local Y usually opens its doors to the public during natural disasters like this one, but this time, it’s in 20 feet of water and is closed indefinitely. I learned that my son’s best friend’s house still has hot water, so yes, I’ve had a shower.
Heat. This is becoming the biggest inconvenience. Last night it was in the low 40s, and it’s supposed to get colder. We walk around in parkas and sleep under a mound of blankets. The schools have been closed all week, of course, so I’m trying to keep my kids occupied with games, DVDs on the laptop and day trips.
Tonight, I’m taking them for a weekend trip to Boston, where a dear friend has offered to supply a guest room and electricity, heat and hot water. We’re thrilled. Sometimes, the technologies a columnist and his family crave most are 100 years old.
I’m curious, what worked for you?