My brother-in-law, who is an engineer for a utility company in Connecticut, has just spent $4,000 on a Honda backup generator designed to keep a good part of his house running for 14 hours on 4.5 gallons of gasoline.

The words engineer for a utility company are what I want you remember. If a guy who works for a power company thinks he needs to spend four grand for a backup generator, what does that tell the rest of us?

We've come to rely so much on the electric grid that when we are forced to do without it, our lives are thrown into chaos, worsening as hours and days pass without power.

Even tent campers know going in that the time spent relying on a Coleman lantern, a propane stove, and an ice chest will be no more than a week at most. And alternatives to camp cooking, as well as hot showers, generally are close by, so you know relief is just a short drive away.

My brother-in-law, his wife, and their three children, however, racked up about 15 days without electricity as a result of Hurricane Irene in late August and the surprise Oct. 29 snowstorm that felled thousands of trees, branches, and power lines.

Another brother-in-law, who brought his family down from Boston the morning after the storm, described the scene as "Armageddon," with hundreds of streets blocked by trees and downed wires.

When I was in Connecticut for Thanksgiving, I saw huge stacks of tree limbs sitting at the edges of front yards, waiting for municipalities to grind them up.

According to Reuters, the utility company had reduced its maintenance budget by almost $40 million last year; that's a lot of overhanging branches that could have been trimmed before they brought down wires.

At the height of the outage, the head of the electric utility made a big deal of his house being in the dark, as if it that made it better for everyone.

The all-in-it-together approach made little difference to my 97-year-old aunt, who lies in a nursing-home bed with a broken hand and a pin holding her hip together.

She has lived by herself all these years, only to fall in a darkened bathroom during the first night of the storm.

We've talked on the phone every two weeks for years. She barely knew I was at her bedside when I visited her recently.

None of her children, who are in their 70s, had power that night, either. Aunt Lena thought she could tough it out, assuming the electricity would come back quickly.

Connecticut's is an extreme example, but power outages happen here, too, more often for some than others. A colleague who lives in the Pennsylvania suburbs and has lost power for days at a time four times during the last two years is having his gas line extended to his kitchen, so he doesn't have to depend on electricity to cook.

We have gas for cooking and a gas-log fireplace that can be operated manually. Our only other concern is the sump pump, but readers have been recommending that I look into a backup that operates on water pressure when the power goes out, and I am.

Although I'm not recommending that everyone run out and buy a generator, I do think we should be prepared for the consequences of what seems to be collapsing infrastructure and reduced private and public spending as economic malaise lingers.

This is not about climate change, but common sense. It's about simple things such as making sure your flashlights have fresh batteries and that you have enough drinking water if your well pump fails or the reservoir is polluted; knowing how to keep pipes from freezing; checking your homeowners' or renters' policies to see what's covered; having food in the house that can be eaten without cooking.

There are many other ways to cope. But the best way is, of course, to be prepared.

On the House:

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens' home improvement column appears Fridays in Home & Design. See instructional videos at Al's Place. Go to philly.com/yourplace

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Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.