Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Don’t be left in the dark: which kinds of power failure back-up lights work best in an earthquake?

What’s worse than being woken up by a large earthquake?  How about being woken
up by a large earthquake in complete darkness because the power went out?  Even
if you were already awake, it’s hard to find your chosen protected spot (UNDER 
something, not next to it) and avoid any tripping hazards like toys on the floor or
even banging into stationary furniture if you can’t see anything.  This is where a
well-placed power failure back-up light in each room can make a huge difference to
your well-being as a quake is occurring.  I’m referring not to flashlights that live in
electrical outlets that are always charged when you need them, but specifically to lights that remain charged and function as dim nightlights as long as the outlet has power, and if the power goes out (or if you unplug the light), a bright emergency light goes on automatically and can last for hours.  The picture shows an older version based on an incandescent bulb; good for illustration but these aren’t available anymore because the LED versions last so much longer on a charge.

I make a point during my talks about having these back-up lights, but if you
actually go to a store or online to find some, you will find a bewildering assortment
of these things; and the sad fact is that I haven’t found any light with which I am
completely satisfied.  However, some are much better for the purpose than others,
and I’m going to report here what I’ve found out over the past few years of looking
for lights that I like.  Some are fine as general power failure back-up lights but are
impractical for earthquakes.  As I always mention, I have no financial ties to any of
these companies and don’t benefit from you choosing any particular brand over
another, but the choice of which to use could make a huge difference in those first
critical seconds of your response during a nighttime earthquake.

I did not consider any back-up light that was bulky, which many of them are.  The
reason is that it makes sense to have one in each room or part of the home in
which being suddenly shaking in pitch dark could be bad; that includes bathrooms.
A bulky light is not going to be practical in many electrical outlets.

While most of these lights provide a constant nightlight when plugged into a
powered outlet and a brighter constant emergency light when there is no power, at
least one product has an emergency light that flashes on and off.  I guess this is
supposed to conserve battery power, but I can’t imagine using this for earthquake
safety.  Picture yourself in a large earthquake, very bewildering and disorienting;
the last thing you need is to add a strobe effect as if you were in a 1970’s disco.
Those of us old enough to remember know how surreal the effect is; if you don’t,
go see American Hustle...  For earthquake emergency back-up, avoid the flashing
lights.

I ended up with three serious contenders, none perfect, and only one that I will
use.  All three have not only a nightlight and emergency back-up light, but also a
real flashlight from a different bulb.  However, don’t choose on the basis of the
flashlight; it’s most important that this functions as a good emergency light and
then you can find your favorite flashlight wherever it normally lives.  First the two
runners-up:

Etón American Red Cross “Blackout Buddy”:  While this has some admirable
features, I was ultimately disappointed with it.  I liked that it was small and flat,
plugs into one outlet without covering the other, and looks sleek enough to not
detract from your décor, with white constant lights.  There was a review on Amazon
about a potential electrical defect that could cause a fire hazard, and I contacted
the company to inquire.  As a result, they responded to the review on Amazon.
According to them, the electrical safety passes standard UL inspection standards,
and the product does indeed have the UL sticker.  Interestingly, I just checked
Amazon and the dialogue is continuing as recently as 2 weeks before this post.  It’s
also been pointed out that some of these products had a moldy smell.  The
manufacturer tells me that the smell was a real problem with one batch but that
has been fixed.

Unfortunately, there are more practical problems with the Blackout Buddy in my
opinion.  The nightlight, despite facing down, casts a very bright cone of light and
would be very distracting in a bedroom.  What’s worse, while it has the brightest
emergency light I’ve seen, which you might think would be a good thing, it
unfortunately faces upward with no diffuser and is blinding to look towards in an
otherwise dark room.  So imagine you are trying to get to a safe place during an
earthquake and being blinded in the process.  No thank you.  I would only use this
in a room in which nobody ever needed to sleep, and in a place where one was only
worried about power outages but not about needing to see during a large
earthquake without being blinded.

(An aside: watch what you put in your living room.  We had a back-up light in our
living room several years ago, which had a nightlight.  We had a guest sleep over,
and months later, I realized that the light had been switched to the complete “off”
position, presumably because it was interfering with the guest’s sleep.  Nothing
wrong with that, although it didn’t get turned back on, so we had actually been
without a back-up light all those months.)

Leviton “rechargeable power failure light”:  This one has a nightlight that is nice and soft, which is good, and leaves one outlet uncovered.  The problem is that the emergency light IS the nightlight; it’s no brighter.  I think it was not intended to cast emergency lighting into a dark room, but instead just to be a floor marker light to help you find your way down a hall.  That’s not good enough for a true emergency situation.  I also found it distracting that the nightlight is amber colored, very pretty but a bit disconcerting late at night in a dark room.

The winner hands down, at least for me, is the Greenlite “LED 3 in 1 Nitelite.”  This also leaves one outlet uncovered, and has a white nightlight that goes on during the dark, with a reasonably bright white emergency light that shines outwardly through a multifaceted lens that spreads the light nicely; no blinding effect while still casting a glow into a dark room.

However, this was not without its problems.  First of all, Amazon has reviews from hundreds of people, some of which love it and some hate it.  Those that hate it mostly complain about bad light sensors, in that the nightlight is supposed to be off when it senses light but some of these would be completely bright during the day, even if a flashlight was shining directly on the light sensor.  My original Greenlites didn’t have this problem, then I ordered more and some did.  My most recent one did not.  I suspect they had some bad batches and the bad reviews are from those who got the bad products.  If you get the Greenlite, be sure to test it for a couple of days before discarding the packaging and be prepared to return it if it is bad in exchange for a new one.

The only problem with all of the Greenlites that I’ve ordered over the last several
years is that the nightlights are too bright in a dark room if you want to sleep;
positively glaring.  However, there’s a work-around, which I think is silly to have to
do but it works nicely.  I may be the only one who’s figured this out because I’ve
never seen it mentioned anywhere.  The light sensor is taking the darkness a little
too seriously and it cranks up the light in a dark room, not nearly as brightly as
when the power cuts out, but enough to be too bright.  The solution is that there’s
a little red LED indicator light to the side of the light sensor that lights up whenever
the product is plugged in.  Believe it or not, by putting an object (your finger or
anything) in front of the red light but not covering it, about a centimeter away, red
light from the indicator bounces off of the object and onto the light sensor, and the
nightlight gets dimmer!  Try it, if the finger gets too close to the red light, the
nightlight doesn’t get dimmer, but as you move farther away from the red light, the
nightlight does get dimmer!

Therefore, I have put a piece of masking tape so that it loops away from the plastic
and then back to it, leaving the sensor completely uncovered and with the red light
just where the tape leaves the plastic so some of it reflects to the sensor.  It’s
easier than it sounds, just look at the photos.  Once in a while, if it is too bright for
me, I adjust the tape.  It doesn’t look fantastic, but if you are really concerned
about it, you can probably find a different kind of tape that will look better.

Feel free to comment on this post if you have any other lights that are worth trying.
I will bend my regular policy of not advertising products if your comment includes
the reasons why a specific product will fulfill the qualities I’ve described above.  I
should emphasize that some of these other lights might be perfectly good power
failure back-up lights in general; the goal here is to have one that doesn’t cause
problems during the confusion of an earthquake (like disorienting or blinding you).
And now hopefully you are no longer in the dark about not getting left in the dark.

>>back to blog


1 comment:

  1. Just to note: last night we had a power outage at about midnight for roughly 1 hour. Writing my own post about power failure back-up lights had prompted me at that time to fill in any gaps and to make sure that I had Greenlite lights strategically placed so that nowhere would be dangerously dark if the lights went out during a night-time earthquake. It was great, easily enough light glowing out into the rooms without any of them being blinding; it was easy to find my way around without bumping into anything or stepping on anything, and to get a somewhat more robust lantern out of the drawer.

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