Using a Computer and the Internet during Power Outages

Suppose that some disaster occurs, not the end of the world as we know it, but some event that is nevertheless relatively severe. How might we use our computers, and even the internet, during the outage?

A power outage certainly makes it more difficult to use a computer, and much more difficult to use the internet. In the past, after a major hurricane, I’ve been without power here in Florida for several days. Of course, at the time, I had no way of knowing how long the power outage would last. I have a few ideas on how to cope with this type of situation.

First, if a storm is approaching, I make certain that all laptops in the house are fully charged. The amount of time you can use a laptop on one battery charge varies greatly from one computer to another. But you should be able to get at least a few hours, especially if you use a few power-saving tricks. Change the setting on the screen to lower the brightness; this will use less power. Don’t play computer games or DVDs. You can also change your browser’s settings to turn off the automatic loading of images. However, some sites are nearly impossible to use without images, so it depends on which sites you need to visit. If you are a savvy internet user, you might obtain an add-on for your browser that blocks Flash objects and graphical ads; this will also save computing power. I use Firefox with add-ons Ad-block Plus and Flash Block. Finally, only use your computer as much as you need to use it. Cut back on your usual amount of computing time.

Second, I have a device that converts power from my car’s cigarette lighter into AC power. I can (and have in the past) recharged a laptop off the cigarette lighter adapters by idling my car in the driveway. Be very cautious if you decide to do likewise. Don’t leave the car unattended, especially if you have kids.

Third, as I’m sure you know, any smart phone can be used to surf the internet, as long as cell service is available. It is also possible, with some phones and laptops, to “tether” the phone to the laptop, so that the laptop uses the cell phone connection to surf the internet. (I think that most cell plans do not allow for this option, so check with your provider.) I have a solar powered cell phone recharger, that I can use to recharge my phone, on sunny days, if the power is out. I also have a device for jump starting my car, which is basically a large battery with special electronics and a short pair of jumper cables. The device also has an outlet, like a car cigarette lighter, to supply power (with the appropriate adapter) to recharge a cell phone. But make certain that your phone is compatible with whatever device you use for recharging.

Fourth, and this is important to obtain internet access while the power is out, I use a UPS (uninterruptible power supply). A UPS is basically a large sealed lead-acid battery, with some electronics so that is suppresses surges, compensates for brown-outs, and supplies full power — for a very limited amount of time — when the power goes out. The more expensive and larger UPS devices can run your desktop or laptop for a longer period of time. That is the main benefit of choosing the more expensive UPS.

Some UPS devices also have a ‘cold start’ capability, meaning that, when the power is out, you can turn on the UPS and use your desktop or laptop computer. I should emphasize here that a large desktop computer can run off a UPS for much less time than a laptop, because desktops draw much more power. But I have in fact run my desktop off a cold start UPS device during a past power outage. You just don’t get very much computer time if your system draws a lot of power.

But how, you say, can you access the internet, if the power is out? Even if you can run a laptop off of a battery, isn’t the internet also down? Not necessarily. There are several possibilities for internet access when the power is out.

My own experience with power outages in Florida, has been that access to the internet via cable modem is intermittent. Sometimes it is up and other times it is down, during one and the same power outage. I plug my cable modem and router into my large UPS device, so that when the power goes out, I can still use the computer and the internet. This does in fact work — often but not always. I should stress that you need a large enough UPS device if you are going to run a modem, router, desktop computer, and monitor all off of the device, without power. (The older CRT type of monitors use too much power for this, but most persons have LCD monitors nowadays.) Also, even with a set-up that would draw the least power (laptop, modem, non-wireless router), you are very limited in the time that you can be online.

Cell phone tethering is another option. You need a compatible phone, and a data plan that allows tethering. If you travel for business, tethering might be useful year-round. If you have frequent power outages, it might be worth the money. Or if you live in a rural area, with sufficient cell phone coverage, but no cable internet access, it might also be an option. My opinion is that it is generally too expensive for most persons.

An inexpensive option is to buy an exterior phone modem, so that you might at least access the internet by dial-up connection, if the cable connection is down. It is not so unusual, when the power goes out, for the phone lines to work. I’m old enough to remember when phone modems were the only access to the internet. But for many people today, the speed would be unacceptably slow. So, it’s up to you. This type of modem is called a voice/fax/data modem, but you would most likely use it only for data. If your local dial-up access points are down, due to the power outage, but your phone line still works, you might try dialing into a more distant access point. Be careful about incurring long distance charges; you’ll need obtain a list of access points that are local. Also, you will need to know which access points are part of your current internet service plan (from your ISP), or you would need to sign up for a dial-up plan with AOL or a similar company. Some companies have been known to offer free one or two month trials to new subscribers. The monthly fee for a basic dial-up plan is usually fairly low.

Well, those are my thoughts, based on my personal experience using computers and the internet during power outages. If you have any thoughts or experiences to share, feel free to comment.

– Thoreau

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