I was at my dentist office this morning. It was a clear and beautiful day and there was a faint chill in the air. When leaving I said to the receptionist and my dentist standing next to me: “Well, winter’s coming.” Two people simultaneously said in unison: “No! Please don’t say that.” Then we all laughed.

Approaching winter reminds me of many things. The snow blower that needs some cleaning and re-adjustment so it starts immediately when wanted, shovels and their whereabouts, flash lights with new batteries, checking antifreeze level in the car, etc. Yes, you’d say we just finished July, what’s your hurry? As I continue to get older, things like the above continue to pop up in my head, which never did when I was young.

Today I wish to discuss the case of emergency generators in case of the power failure. Power failures occur in storms when overhead catenary wires carrying power to homes get disconnected by tree branches falling on them or just simply disrupted by strong wind or ice or both. Even though the utility crew would start working as soon as they become aware, it might take up to several hours or even days.

Today I write about the safety issues of emergency power for people who are Aging in Place (AIP). A substantial percentage of people in the age bracket of 65+ (under the American with Disabilities Act) choose to stay in their own home instead of going to live in the nursing homes or similar institutions. When they live isolated in their dwelling, a power failure is a serious cause of accidents, light or heavy.

There are a few ways to provide emergency power during the power failure period.

1) Emergency power generator (gas or diesel), automatic switch over.

The system may run up to $10,000 or up to install as a licensed electrician specializing in the installation and maintenance of such systems is required. The system needs to be started up periodically to make sure the engine is ready to function in case of a power failure. The system offers convenience of almost seamless automatic power availability in case of power failure, and the power capacity can be as large as the user wishes. It could power the entire household as though no power failure happened.

The two rather serious shortcomings inherent in this system is that it generates substantial noise in a quiet neighborhood, as well as emits its exhaust gas which includes carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Unless your home is located in a sparse neighborhood or on the wide-open land with no neighbors, this system could cause some issues with your neighbors. I used to live in a very closely built-up old neighborhood, and I do remember the harsh noise of some neighbors’ generators reverberating in the air and the smell of exhaust wafting in the air, whenever power failed. However, the system is very convenient though expensive if the installation design is thoroughly done with safety and anti-pollution measures considered.

2) Emergency power generator, gas, manual start.

Small gas engine portable generators are readily available from many stores that sell home appliances. The prices go from somewhere around $500 to upward of $1,000, and their capacity starts around 1KW. Many of them come mounted on small wheels and they are relatively easy to move around. There are two main problems for the users. One is obviously the noise and exhaust gas the generator produces. Users are warned not to install or use it inside the closed home. The second problem is the question of what to do with the power it generates? The output cable must be connected to loads — a bunch of lights or space heater. This type of power cannot be connected to the house wiring unless done by a certified electrician, and must be through a safety switch.

One clear cut warning I wish to make: Do not use this inside home. Also, do not use this inside an apartment. You are asking for big trouble. Another problem is the muscle one needs to start the generator. If the generator hasn’t been started for a while, one has to pull the starter cord many times to get it started.

3) Flashlights. Battery powered.

As a temporary measure this is safe until the batteries run out. The users must make sure the flashlight batteries are fresh and many more are available in a place of easy access. And you remember where they are. Many households do have flashlights. But, they cannot find them when the power fails. This is often a comical reality. One can fall and get injured while in search of flashlights. In fact, using a flashlight temporarily is one of the safest solutions to the failing power if you know where flashlights and spare batteries are in the house, and they are easily accessible.

4) Candles and fireplace.

Of all the above solutions, candles are the worst, and I highly recommend that elders do not use them. Candles are dangerous unless properly watched and carefully placed in settings that cannot cause a fire. In the Aging in Place situation, that cannot be really guaranteed. Fireplaces are much better, however it doesn’t provide portable light sources. In fact, I recommend very strongly that sons and daughters of the parents Aging in Place to never allow them to have any candles in their home. So many people have died in fires caused by candles.

I have an inexpensive and very safe solution in mind. It works automatically. I will describe it next week.

To be continued.

Shintaro "Sam" Asano was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the top 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century. He lives on the seacoast of New Hampshire with his dog Sophie. You can write to Sam at sasano@americaninventioninstitute