Tech lessons from 72 hours without electricity

Backup batteries, solar charges, and UPS boxes kept me afloat during three days mostly cut off from the world.

macbook iphone ipad blank screens

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In late October, my house lost power and internet for three days, part of a larger story involving nearby fires and poorly maintained electrical infrastructure in California. Over those 72 hours and the ones that directly preceded and followed them, I spent a lot of time thinking about how best to deal with technology when faced with a blackout. Here’s what I learned.

Backup batteries are essential

If you don’t own any backup batteries to charge your devices, get some. They’re useful when traveling—I always bring at least one with me fully charged when I go on a trip, so I don’t end up in an unfamiliar city without a fully functional iPhone. I have two 10,000 mAh batteries with two USB ports, capable of charging an iPhone several times.

Just in case of extended blackouts, I also bought a solar charger earlier this year. By keeping it in the sun all day, I could almost completely recharge one of those big batteries, extending the time before all my devices would be completely out of power.

I also flipped on Low Power Mode across all my iPhones. (Apple, how about a Low Power Mode for the iPad?) In Low Power Mode (accessible from the Battery menu in the Settings app), iPhones are much more aggressive at putting off tasks that can drain a battery—and my goal was to ration power as much as possible. I even turned off always-on mode on the display of my new Apple Watch, to extend its battery life.

solar battery charger Jason Snell

Charging a battery via solar panels? It works!

Another smart tech product that you should probably own is a UPS, or Uninterruptable Power Supply. These are fat power strips with heavy integrated batteries that let your devices stay on briefly when the power goes out. Not only can they help you ride out momentary outages during storms, but the give you time to save or transfer files to other devices and then shut down in the case of a longer outage. In the case of a power outage that doesn’t take down your internet connection, you can also use the battery in a UPS to power your cable modem and router to keep the Wi-Fi on.

During the outage, I found another use for my UPS. When the power went out, I made sure to shut down all of my devices and turn off the UPS. What that meant is that the UPS still had power in its battery. I ended up dragging a floor lamp into my living room and using the UPS to give us some electric light in the evenings. (I ran an extension cord from another room to do this, because my UPS has the unfortunate “feature” of beeping loudly to warn you that the power has gone off.)

Between the batteries, the solar charger, and the UPS, we managed to keep ourselves in good shape for the three days we were powerless.

Losing the internet is worse

While I had planned in advance to lose power, what I hadn’t planned for was the possibility that we’d entirely lose our connection to the internet. My local cable provider’s internet infrastructure went down in the outage, and two-thirds of the cell towers in my county also went down, despite the carriers claiming that they had put generators in place for just this eventuality.

As a result, I had a charged cellphone, a couple of backup batteries—and nothing to connect to. To save on battery life, the first thing you should do when you’re in an area of no cellular service is to go into Airplane Mode. When a phone can’t get a signal, it cranks up the power to its radios in order to see if it can find something. It just ends up draining the battery.

low data mode

Low Data Mode can help your iPhone focus on downloading the most important stuff.

Depending on where we walked around our neighborhood, we could sometimes get a cellular signal, and sometimes even sporadic access to data. When we tried to check in on the world (with Airplane Mode off, obviously), I turned on Low Data Mode, which you can find in the Settings app by tapping on Cellular, then Cellular Data Options. You can also turn on Low Data Mode for Wi-Fi connections by tapping Wi-Fi and then tapping the name of the active Wi-Fi network. If you’re anywhere where there’s a slow data connection, Low Data Mode tells your iPhone to restrict how much data it uses, prioritizing the currently open app.

My assumption was that if I managed to find a gateway to the internet, whether it was on Wi-Fi or cellular, I wouldn’t want my phone to try to upload photos or do any other extravagant things with the limited size of the data pipe.

In praise of caching

I did end up find a reliable location for internet access—the supermarket within walking distance of my house had installed an enormous generator and also had its Wi-Fi network up and running—and popped over there several times a day for an update on what was happening in the wider world.

In doing so, I came to appreciate even more one of the features that I frequently use when I’m about to get on an airplane: content apps that save data locally so you can read or view it later. I saved a bunch of articles from The Athletic’s iPhone app, let the New York Times app cache a day’s worth of content, and gave myself an afternoon’s reading.

In a situation like this, you learn which apps are your friends, and which apps aren’t. (While still on Wi-Fi, I remembered to copy and paste the text out of an email newsletter so I could read it later—because Apple Mail is simply terrible at working offline.)

I’m also glad that my podcast and music apps had some content stored on my phone rather than streaming exclusively from the cloud, because I was able to keep listening to stuff even when disconnected. (I generally download a few Apple Music playlists to my phone so I have access when I fly, and have Overcast set to automatically download podcasts when on Wi-Fi.)

Can you do radio?

Readers of this site are people who generally embrace technology. You probably leaped from cassette to CD to MP3 rapidly, and maybe you’ve also embraced streaming music services and AirPods and all the rest.

sanyo radio Jason Snell

My 1980s vintage cassette player works with EarPods—but not the Lightning version.

This may also mean that at some point, perhaps without even noticing it, you got rid of the last device in your house capable of receiving AM/FM radio stations. It almost happened to me, except I kept my old off-brand cassette player from the 80s around just in case I ever found a tape I needed to digitize. That player is also an AM/FM radio, and since it uses AA batteries and a standard headphone jack, I was able to stay up to date on the latest emergency information from local radio stations during the outage. If you don’t have a way to listen to radio in your house, you might want to buy a radio-capable device of some kind. (There’s even a generation of iPod nano that will receive FM radio signals!)

The Kindle is great in a blackout

Finally, I want to praise the Kindle e-reader, on which I read several books during out blackout. The Kindle will run for a week on a single charge, especially if you put it in Airplane Mode. It lights itself, so you can read it even in the pitch darkness of a neighborhood entirely devoid of power. And it’s got enough storage to hold dozens of books.

I enjoy my Kindle for lots of reasons, primarily among them that it’s a more comfortable, less distracting reading environment than my iPhone or iPad. But in a low-energy scenario, it also benefits by having very long battery life and caching everything.

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