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Summary:

Millions in the northeast U.S. are under blankets of snow that have shut down many cities. Although trapped in the home by the storm, the use of mobile tech can make that experience easier with proper planning. Here’s how to weather the storm with tech.

Snow covered freeway.

Millions are currently feeling the effects of the harsh weather in the northeast U.S., not the least of which are the sore muscles from shoveling so much snow. The news is full of all of the cities that are virtually shut down by the blizzard that keeps on giving. I am fortunate to be in Houston, far from the white blanket of snow that is covering much up north. I’m not immune to the weather, however, as I am currently sitting without power, writing this using the glow of the laptop screen to light my way. I am able to keep going strictly due to the mobile tech that I employ, and that same tech could help those in the blizzard-encrusted north.

It may be too late to prepare for the winter storm, but hopefully this will give food for thought for the future. A lot of what I will cover is simply common sense, but it may help some. I have used these techniques many times here on the Gulf Coast, due to the massive storms and hurricanes that come all too frequently. The two weeks I survived without power during Hurricane Ike put all of my previous experience to shame.

Most of you have notebook computers, and these can be a real boon during storm periods. Power loss is so common during inclement weather, and battery powered notebooks are valuable during such times. Extended power loss can mean the inability to tap into the news of the day, something vital during storms. Make sure you charge your laptop and phone batteries fully when word comes that a big storm is headed your way. You may be forced to rely on those batteries more than you would like. If your house is a multiple laptop home, make sure all of them are fully charged. That includes all of the kid’s laptops.

So the power is off and you have candles lit in the rooms where everyone congregates. The first thing you should do is designate one of the laptops as the current one and just use that one. You don’t know how long the power will be out so stretch those batteries out by only using one at a time. Go in and set the laptop’s power management to the most aggressive you can. Unplug all peripherals like external speakers that you may be using. That will make the battery last as long as possible. Run that battery down all the way, and then switch to another laptop if you’re lucky enough to have one. Repeat the process. Two laptops can provide up to 12 hours if the batteries are new and the computers are not old.

So you have the laptops ready to go for a few hours, now you need connectivity. During Hurricane Ike I found the only current weather information I could get at all was over the web. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, so connectivity is crucial. Many of you have 3G modems, either USB or wireless like the MiFi I use. These let you get connected as needed and get the news of the day. Go to the website for one of the TV stations in a big city near you. Most of them have constant streaming weather news during storms, and they are great sources of information. Don’t stay connected all the time, that drains those precious batteries. Connect only when needed and then shut down.

What do you do if you don’t have one of these 3G modems? Many are using smartphones today and often they can be tethered to a laptop to provide connectivity. There is usually a monthly cost to do this, typically around $15, but this is a cheap price during storm events. Usually you can call the carrier and have this tethering service turned on and off without penalty. You do have to pay for a full month but again, that’s cheap in times such as these. Once it is activated you can tether the phone to the laptop using either a USB cable or over Bluetooth. Either method works fine for quick online sessions to get news.

During a storm like that in the northeast currently raging, flight cancellations are the theme of the day. Already thousands of flights have been canceled in the U.S., and anyone with plans to travel can be affected. Bookmark the web site of the airline you plan to use, as they typically do a good job keeping flight statuses up-to-date. It is harrowing enough to travel around storms, and this can keep you from heading to the big airport only to find out your flight’s been cancelled.

There are also some free travel planning services that are good at times like these. I’ve tried TripIt and WorldMate, and both are good at times like these as they send notices to your email or phone when your flight’s been affected by the weather. I’m sure there are other services that are good, these are just the two I have used.

These are just common sense methods to deal with the storm, but worth mentioning. Some may not realize that mobile tech can play a pivotal role when a storm ties you down, but my experience shows that it can. If you are affected by these storms rocking the U.S., hunker down and stay safe.

  1. It should probably be noted that tethering often requires hardware or software you don’t already have, so you should make sure you have what you need well ahead of any emergency. Also, don’t trust it to work, try it out for a month, maybe during a month you’re going on vacation or a business trip so you can get some usefulness out of it too. Bluetooth tethering is particularly finicky and varies from handset to handset.

    Also, $15 tethering only applies to people who already have smartphones with data plans. Tethering for normal handsets typically costs more on par to the smartphone plan+$15 ($35-50 depending on carrier).

    Still worth it in an emergency I think, and some carriers will actually pro-rate it.

    1. Oh, and bluetooth tethering also varies between computers due to the wild assortment of bluetooth stacks out there, so if you have multiple laptops to do this on, test that out too. :)

  2. I use an APC UPS at home to charge my devices if the power goes out. Most UPSs will let you turn them on and off as needed after the power goes out. Its possible to keep your smart phone charged for several days with one decent sized UPS, and use that phone to check on the news, way more efficient than using a laptop and a data card/mifi.

  3. Don’t forget to have a bog-standard radio..

  4. So, no trips to the coffee shop, then?

  5. That’s it? That’s your whole article? How about some simple stuff that really makes a difference.

    • Get an auto inverter. Plugs into a cigar socket in the car and gives 110/220 volts. Then you can charge your devices.
    • Get a battery powered phone charger. They’re really cheap and can give you a full charge off 2x AA batteries.
    • Get an LED torch. Days on a single set of batteries.
    • Ordinary radio is still the most important way to keep in touch.
      -Use Eneloop batteries instead of NiCad rechargeable batteries. They retain their charge for a year.
      -Get a cheap USB TV tuner for you laptop. Then you can get emergency TV broadcasts for your laptop.

    We’ve been without power for nearly 5 days once. You must have a recharge strategy. Turning on power saver isn’t it. Having a long batttery and a tehthered phone/3G modem is great but as soon as you plug them in they drain your battery and loose their own power. If you’re in an area wher you can loose ac power then having a recharge solution is vital.

    Gordon

    1. All good points, Gordon. Those in areas of frequent power outages should look at all the things you mentioned, and I’d add a small generator to the list.

      My article was simply pointing out a strategy using the things likely already at hand. I am constantly told by folks they didn’t know you could turn tethering on and off without a contract, for example.

  6. I’ve had sketchy power and Internet for a week now, due to the blizzard in the Washington, D.C., area. I was able to plan ahead before the storm, so I topped off all my batteries and backup batteries ahead of time.

    One tip I’d offer is to charge old devices, too, since using them can help save power on current devices.

    For example, I like to read ebooks on my WinMob devices (and backlit ebooks have a big advantage during power outages). Rather than running down my current phone, I loaded my books on my old WinMob/Pocket PCs — and even an old Palm IIIxe — and read them on those devices. The Palm, which uses AAA batteries and runs down slowly, turned out to be the jewel in the system, since I had lots of extra batteries on hand.

    I also put an old HTC Apache phone back in action. After I ran down all three extra batteries tethering on my current phone (Touch Pro), I reactivated my Apache. (I love extra phone batteries — big fail for iPhones!)

    Same with laptops. I have two “current” laptops — each with extra batteries — so they gave me about 30 hours. I also used two other really old laptops (and their extra batteries) for another 15 hours of use.

    I milked some extra power out of my uninterruptable power supplies, too. As soon as the power went out, I unplugged all the devices from all them and pulled the batteries out. I was able to recharge my Touch Pro a couple of times from these and from the car adapter.

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