My family was among the 367,000 PG&E customers affected by a massive power outage in the San Francisco Bay Area this week. Strong winds brought down trees and power lines, leaving us without power, internet access and heat for exactly 24 hours.
The blackout made me appreciate how amazing electricity and internet access are, and how critical they are to a modern lifestyle. Working from home, hearing from schools and the utility company, coordinating with my wife—all pushed through a woefully inadequate cell phone network connection.
But a few things helped me through this difficult patch. Some of them were pretty high-tech, but there’s still room for pre-internet products in your emergency kit. Here’s what I turned to.
Connecting my laptop to my phone to take advantage of the cellular network was critical to getting through the outage. I’m amazed at how much a person can get done with a smartphone these days, but in my case everything seems to be at least twice as slow as with a laptop. Some tasks, such as complex image editing, require a laptop. So for me tethering was essential.
Unfortunately, the networks my phones use (I have a Google Pixel 7 Pro and an iPhone 14 Pro) aren’t very fast, and with so many other people’s internet access down during the outages, I suspect the networks were overtaxed. I remember the crushing feeling when my browser estimated that it would take 40 minutes to download a 4.2 MB image file.
Pro tip: On Android, you can connect with a USB-C cable, which can be more reliable than Wi-Fi and keeps your phone charged, too. It also works with iPhones and Lightning cables. This approach is where the term “tether” came from, of course, but mostly I connect with Wi-Fi these days because it’s easier and more flexible.
Phone battery saver modes
I love the phone’s battery saver mode and often use it when I’m at all-day conferences, out on a long trip or unsure when I can charge. I long ago customized my iPhone’s Control Center with the low power mode switch.
I like the Pixel phone’s approach better, where you can set battery saver mode to automatically activate when the battery charge reaches a certain percentage. I have it set to turn on at 60%, but during the power outage I left it on the whole time.
Android goes a step further with extreme battery saving, which turns off all apps except some core ones and those you specify. You can launch anything and use it, but unless you add it to the exception list, extreme battery saving will turn it off again. Overnight, my Pixel’s battery charge dropped to just 2% during the outage.
Anker 535 PowerHouse battery
The Anker 535 PowerHouse is one of a number of large batteries that, although expensive, can be very useful in the event of a power outage. I used it to charge my laptop and phone, to use an LED light, and most crucially, to run my broadband modem when I needed my fast network. The display helpfully told me that my network equipment required 26 watts of power, which is more than I want, but the battery is big enough to last for hours.
PowerHouse also has its own built-in LED light strip. It is quite bright and I would have preferred a dimmer option.
This model comes with conventional power plugs as well as one USB-C port (not enough) and three USB-A ports (too many). It’s better to charge your devices directly from the USB ports if you can: Connecting a charger to one of the battery’s power plugs means you’ll suffer a loss of efficiency converting from DC to AC and back.
My child’s flashlight and other LED-lit toys
Our kid likes little toys as much as any elementary school kid does, and I was thrilled when he realized that night that he had brought home a couple of LED-lit party favors. I’m not sure what to call them, but they have a glowing cylindrical handle with a brush of fiber optic plastic threads sprouting from one end. They are supposed to be new products, but turned out to be practical flashlights as well.
However, I was happier with another gimmick, the frog lantern we got him at REI to try and lure him into camping trips. The carabiner hook design allowed me to attach it to my belt loop and it was great for quick bedtime lighting.
Candles are a thousand-year-old technology, and you know what? They are still working. More than 10 hours into the blackout and with no idea when it might end, I was eager to conserve what battery power I had left.
I took some mushy ice cream out of our freezer, lit a candle from our emergency kit, and had a late night dessert.