Surviving when the lights go out

Pat Gardiner
Pat Gardiner, writer

Self sufficiency writer, Pat Gardiner, tells of a typical experience living off the grid: unintentionally — and the steps he takes to continue a civilised life even in prolonged power cuts.

In remote rural Norfolk, England, you learn very quickly not to take power for granted. Overhead lines are a disaster waiting to happen.

Smallholders are far more likely to be badly affected by crises than city dwellers; they are also better able to prepare. It’s not a question of building a wigwam, trapping rabbits or making a fire. Its about sensible steps long before the event. Self-sufficiency is not a selfish philosophy. What can you do to prepare? A great deal and this article will give you the basics. The more you plan it into your lifestyle, the more effective it will be.

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In an emergency, as in the Great Storm 1988, the authorities are duty bound to rush assistance through to the cities and towns. Remote and isolated smallholders have to look after themselves — and their neighbours. There is nothing like a crisis for making people co-operate in a common interest.

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Weather is the regular threat. Storms, snow and flood prevent physical movement and cut power and telephone. Usually, it is a combination of crises. This scenario is increasingly common, even in the usually benign British Isles. Then there is man’s own actions in the form of accidents, terrorism and strikes.

Shortages caused by strikes, impact on electricity and also on fuel for travelling, as well as emptying supermarket shelves. The shortages may not always be rational, but we know what they are likely to be from previous incidents.


Solid fuel heating systems, especially those that do not need electricity to circulate the hot water, are a winner. Paraffin heaters are another useful stand-by.

However, it is difficult to do without electricity completely. Prolonged cuts can be catastrophic.

A supply of rechargeable batteries ready for use is a must. A small petrol or gas generator can be used to recharge, and, if big enough, give a boost to the freezers during power cuts.

Cooking facilities are best handled either on a solid-fuel stove or by gas canister cooker. Most small generators cannot provide an adequate back-up.

Boreholes providing a private water supply are useful, if you can keep them running during a freeze, and if you have them rigged so the generator can provide some power.

A four- wheel drive is a good back-up vehicle for anyone in hills or mountains, but if you can’t get the news, you can’t plan any travel.

Communications are very vulnerable.

To keep informed, use small battery operated TV’s and radios. Wind-up radios are a good idea.

To get messages out, a mobile telephone is a must, or, in some circumstances, a radio transmitter.

More than one motor car, fully fuelled plus additional fuel (well away from the house and children).

It all sounds very dramatic, but the writer has needed all these many times.

Preparation gives peace of mind. Plan and you can let the world sort itself out. You will be one burden less for the authorities to worry about. You will be in a position to look after yourself and be a help to others.

Self-sufficiency is not a selfish philosophy.

So here is a list of the writer’s essentials:

Items that will be panic bought and quickly become unavailable…

Salt, toilet rolls, powdered milk (if you have no home supply) bread flour and yeast – ( renew the yeast on a regular basis).

Providing for power cuts…

Battery charger, rechargeable batteries, generator plus fuel, battery radio, battery television, lots of torches. Make sure that everything you need to power from the generator has the appropriate connectors.

Make sure you can also recharge at least one torch using the motor car (cigarette lighter usually).

Telephone line down…

Mobile phone (make sure you can recharge the battery).

Keeping warm…

Logs (also chain saw, oil and fuel), matches, paraffin and paraffin heaters. Also a few bags of coal or other solid fuel.

The Animals…

Feed, hay and straw.


Space on the wood-burner. A portable gas stove.


The chainsaw, Wellington boots, mobile phone and blanket in the car. Tow-rope.

The most important and the strictly luxurious.

Whiskey, wine and a full freezer and larder. A large container for drinking water. Aspirin and any other medical necessities. Some cash (always helps).


At this point when writing the original of this article in 2002, the lights went out. Really, they did!

So naturally we did the sensible thing, our daughter still had light and heat, as did the fish and chip shop and the pub.

So after checking on our elderly neighbour, who was doing her best to set fire to her home – well you are allowed to at 92 – we piled in the car and went visiting. We came home to feast on fish and chips in the candlelight. The electricity came back the following morning.

There is no point in making a drama out of a crisis unnecessarily. Panic and generators are kept for real emergencies. Little ones just give an excuse for a break in the routine.

This spring (2005) we improved the connections between the generator and the house. Flick a switch, start the generator and we have all the house lights, plus the all important wood-burner pump. That would be the night-time configuration. During prolonged cuts, we can switch the generator to boost our four freezers.

We also had a planned power cut two days ago to allow the electricity company to cut overhanging trees. We had the thermos filled with coffee. Memo to self: must get bigger thermos.

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