Surviving a Weather-Related Power Outage
Staying Warm When It's Lights Out
Reading Time: 8 minutes
It’s all fun and games until it’s lights out. But a little preparation can help you survive a power cut and outage.
Losing power during summer is hot, sweaty, and miserable. You hold glasses of milk against your perspiring forehead then drink before the milk goes bad. But unless temperatures top 95 degrees or you need medical equipment, you will probably survive the power outage as an inconvenience.
A power outage during cold weather is a bigger problem.
It’s bad enough that the light’s out. While your refrigerator fails, pipes freeze. Well pumps can’t move water. Soon even toilets fail. And if it’s bitter cold outside, not even a single heating blanket will warm you up.
It’s a dismal picture. But even if you don’t live where there is often a power outage, it helps to prepare with small purchases and planning.
Before It’s Lights Out
Rural locations are known for frequent power outages, and it takes a while for repairs to happen. But a power outage can happen anywhere, for reasons as simple as an unexpected lake effect snowstorm. Or the fall of an old tree you intended to remove but never got around to. Even off-grid systems fail if blizzards pile high on solar panels or generators run out of fuel.
Know your property before there is a power outage. Where is the water shutoff valve, in case a pipe bursts? What about gas shutoff? And where is your electrical breaker box? If a winter storm hits, where is freezing water most likely to pool? And is your basement prone to floods?
Once you discover strengths and weaknesses on your property, show all family members how to deal with them. Dig drainage trenches to draw water away from the house. Teach older children how to recognize the smell of gas and to shut off the valve if a leak occurs. Have a family emergency plan, involving scenarios where you have to leave the house or hunker down until the heat comes back on.
Seal up cracks on pipes. Freezing and bursting pipes can make a bad situation much worse. A blizzard is the wrong time to find where pipes enter the house and to fill the cracks with insulating foam. Do it now. If the pipes enter toward the middle of the house, they will probably not freeze unless the outage becomes a state of emergency. Pipes entering the house near outside walls can freeze, even if the power stays on. Wrap these pipes in foam or even old towels, remembering that “heat tape” won’t work if there is no electricity. Close up any drafts that bring cold air inside or under the house.
Keep food storage rotated. Imagine that it’s lights-out in January. Bad enough, right? Then it stays out for several days. When you leave your bedroom quilts long enough to enter the frigid kitchen, you consume what’s in the refrigerator first. Then you start on the food storage, only to discover that everything has expired.
Don’t just buy or jar your food storage once and consider it done for five years. Refresh it at least once a year, rotating the oldest stuff to the front and putting the new cans in the back. Purchase food you will use, especially food that doesn’t require heat to make it into something edible.
Semi-perishable food should be rotated and checked more often. That includes pressure-canned foods with low acidity, any meats or fatty foods in aluminum cans, and grains that haven’t been vacuum-sealed with moisture absorbers. It’s time to throw out that can of yams in syrup that you didn’t use three Thanksgivings ago.
Make lighting easy. It’s hard to find the gas line in the dark. And you don’t want to trip on toys, gashing a knee open, as you look for a flashlight. Then you’ll also need a first aid kit! Keep the emergency candles and lighters in the storage room but hang a battery-operated light out on a hook next to a window or door. Grab that light so you can see to find everything else.
Remember communication. Reliance on landlines is becoming rarer, but not obsolete. Most households have at least one cellular phone, which still works during a power outage but is useless if it loses power. A 10,000mAh external battery charger can power up a smartphone up to four times before the charger has to be recharged. Some can even charge three devices at a time. They have capacities of 3,000mAh to 30,000mAh; the lowest end are below $10 while the highest capacity is less than $100. Keep your charger charged, so it’s full and ready when you need it. Also, keep a car charger on hand. In the absence of a working battery charger, start up the car long enough to get power flowing and make necessary calls.
With modern technology, we often forget about how battery-powered radios keep us in touch with the world. Long after the cell phones die, a traditional radio can notify you of more storms or if relief is on the way.
Find out which friends and family do not have communication they can use during power cuts. If the weather gets bad, they may not be able to tell you if they’re in trouble.
Have another heat source. Do you have a wood stove or fireplace? Lucky! Keep dry wood in the house or in a sheltered place outside so you have heat when you need it. But if you don’t have a heat source that doesn’t require electricity, you might want to do something about that. My favorite emergency source is a kerosene heater, which has high output but low emissions compared to other alternative heating sources. Highly rated heaters cost less than $150 and they use the same kerosene you’d pour into hurricane lanterns.
Since you don’t want to burn all your kerosene in one day, have other ways to keep warm that don’t involve electricity. If you’re willing to bundle up, congregate in a single room and put on a hat; the fueled heaters can take the edge off and keep the pipes flowing.
Keep automobiles fueled. The gas tank should be at least half full to transport you away from a natural disaster. If a large storm has been predicted, fill up the tank.
Keep the right tools around. This includes a wrench for shutting off gas lines, those utility lighters with the long nozzles, and even a manual can opener so you can eat from your food storage. You’ll need strong tape and plastic sheeting in case a window breaks. And a shovel to clear a path to your vehicle in case you need to leave.
What about generators? They’re great if you can afford them. If you have someone in your home who relies on electrical medical equipment, shop for a generator and keep extra gasoline on hand. The generator doesn’t have to run full-time to heat a space, but you may need to invest in backup batteries and power sources for that medical equipment.
Keep a first aid kit. This is always a good idea. During a power outage that may close roads, paramedics might be unable to get to you in time. Keep necessary trauma packs and learn how to use them in case you have to care for someone until help arrives.
Until The Light Shines Again
A storm blows in. Wet snow sits heavy on power lines. Ice forms. Heavy winds knock lights out. Whatever happened, transformers explode all over town and the roads are deep with precipitation. You’re on your own for a while.
First, unplug all sensitive equipment such as computers. When the power comes back on, it may surge. And you have no idea when that will be.
Now try to learn the source of the outage. If it’s an earthquake, shut off gas lines until all danger has passed. Floods may require evacuation and learning a few facts about floods help you decide if it’s safe to just hunker down and wait. Call friends and family with small children or disabled loved ones to be sure they are safe. SMS messages often go through when cell reception is spotty.
If someone in your home needs electric healthcare equipment, notify the power company. Often, power companies prioritize response time according to community needs.
Get the candles and lanterns ready for when the sun light’s out, as well. Decide whether you’re going to cook on a gas grill or just eat food in the fridge before it goes bad. Find blankets, books, and board games and put them in the room your family will use to conserve heat.
A fully packed deep freeze can stay frozen up to a week as long as it’s in a cool place and the door isn’t opened. If it isn’t winter and your freezer is nearly empty, remember to check it in a couple days. Refrigerators can stay cold for hours after the light’s out. Eat that food first, because it’s no longer safe when it reaches 41 degrees. Sorry, but you don’t want food poisoning to complicate matters. If you need to keep food cool for a little longer, large roasts from the freezer can act as ice packs…but you need to cook and eat those roasts before they also reach 41 degrees.
If you use alternative heat that isn’t already vented, open a window. Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. You often don’t know someone has been poisoned until it’s too late. Wood stoves and fireplaces already have chimneys, but kerosene heaters need open windows. Gasoline and propane belong outside. So does charcoal, especially commercially sold briquettes that have been treated with accelerant. That means cooking dinner on a cold patio to keep everyone alive and healthy.
Do not operate an alternative heat source without ventilation. Just don’t do it.
And remember your animals. If you have pregnant ewes in a heated barn, provide extra dry, clean straw. Keeping turkeys and chickens warm is easy if they have a draft-free coop. You may need to break holes in ice if trough heaters don’t work. Most animals will be fine in rough weather, as long as they have shelter and access to food and water.
When will the power come back on? Certainly, after the outage has become inconvenient, frustrating, and maybe damaging to the household. Hold tight and remember to stay warm, fed and healthy. Keep checking on those who aren’t as prepared. Work and huddle together while it’s lights-out.
Cooler Crock Pots
Want hot food with the lowest energy output? Try this sous vide trick.
What is sous vide cooking? It’s a method that involves immersing food in hot water to slowly raise it to the right temperature. The same trick used for beer cooler sous vide will turn your Igloo into a crock pot.
Line an insulated cooler with several towels or blankets. Place ingredients for stews, curries, or other soft food within a covered pot. If you’re cooking poultry, cut it from the bone first then slice into small chunks to ensure it heats all the way through. Now place the pot on a heat source and bring it just to a boil. Turn off the heat and place the pot within the cooler, fully wrapping the pot in towels or blankets so it doesn’t harm the plastic. Close the cooler. This cooking method takes longer than a traditional slow cooker, so use the waiting time to call family or check on the animals. By the time you’re weary from clearing snow, hot stew should be ready.
Use this same method to boil water and then keep it hot for coffee and cocoa throughout the day.
Power Outage Survival Kits
Not ready for the first outage? Keep these items on hand and stay prepared:
- Bottled Water
- Non-Perishable Food
- Candles and Flashlights
- External Battery for Charging Phones
- Radio and Spare Batteries
- Sterno Cans or a Propane Cooking Stove
- Clean-Burning Alternative Heat
- Tools for Repairs
- Books and Board Games
- Blankets and Warm Clothing
Have you had to survive when the light’s out? Do you have any tips to share? We’d love to hear them.
Originally published in Countryside March/April 2017 and regularly vetted for accuracy.