It is likely that you've experienced a power outage at one time or another. Perhaps you have weathered a hurricane, ice storm, snowstorm, thunderstorm, or just plain old high winds. All of these events can knock out a utility company’s supply of power to your home. So what is the safest course of action when this happens?
There are several risks that come with power outages, though they vary depending on the length of the outage. You will want to have a plan for immediate safety with back-ups in place for long-term outages. Some of these plans are simply common sense, while others require a bit more specific forethought. All of them will allow your home to remain a safe and happy environment in the event of an outage.
When the Lights Go Out
Check for Downed Powerlines
Immediately upon losing power, you should check around the outside of your home for downed lines. If a tree has fallen, or ice has built up, on a line within sight of your property, consider calling 911 in addition to your utility company. Downed power lines present an immediate and dire threat to everyone’s safety.
Live wires can cause fatal electrocution, especially in wet conditions. They can also spark fires that can quickly spread. The threat of fire is exceptionally high in dry and windy conditions. Never approach a downed powerline. The professional linemen, and women, of the utility company, have the tools and knowledge to ensure the scene is safe before making repairs.
Get Out Your Emergency Kit
This means that you need to have an emergency kit. Have one bag stored in a central location with the following items:
- Spare batteries
- First Aid kit
- Emergency phone numbers including numbers for your utility companies
- A safety checklist
- Granola bars or trail mix that is not expired
- A battery-powered weather radio
Start with your safety checklist. It should include a list of electronics that need to be turned off and unplugged. When the power does return, it often brings with it a brief surge of power. Maybe your new flat screen will survive this, or maybe it won't. Remember to unplug it, and you won't need to find out. This checklist can also be used to ensure that your carbon monoxide detectors are in the appropriate locations and fully functional so that everyone can go to sleep confident that they will wake up in the morning.
At that moment when everything shuts down, it’s easy to get carried away with panic-stricken children & excited teens. It’s also common to feel overwhelmed by the situation. Having a checklist that reminds you of all the things to unplug can ease your anxiety and ensure no laptops, tablets, or TVs get forgotten.
The checklist should also include a reminder to place carbon monoxide detectors near any space heaters that you may be using. Check the batteries to make sure that they are still good and replace them if necessary. You should have the correct spare batteries for this in your emergency kit.
Report the Outage
You should have the phone numbers that you need in your emergency kit. If you don’t have cell phone service at your home, keeping a true landline is a great way to maintain communication. In this event, be sure to have one corded phone in the house. Remember that cordless phones don’t work without electricity. Losing electricity also means losing your internet connection, so make certain that you have an alternate way to call for help.
When the Light Stay Out for More than an Hour
After an hour without power, you’ll likely start to notice a change in temperature, as well. If it’s hot out, be prepared to head for the basement or at least avoid the top floors of your home. This is also when a battery-powered fan comes in really handy. Of course, if you have anyone in your home that is sensitive to severe temperatures, you may want to consider investing in a generator to supply back-up power.
If you are experiencing an outage during the winter months, you will need to have an alternative heat source ready to go. If you plan to use a fireplace, be sure to get the chimney cleaned and inspected every fall. Dirty chimneys pose a serious threat of fire and add to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you plan to use a space heater as your alternative heat source, keep it far from any flammable objects and have carbon monoxide detectors nearby. Space heaters should be kept a minimum of three feet from curtains, furniture, bedding, clothes, and wall coverings. Ensure that children can’t bump into them, as well.
Food and Water
Perishable food can spoil after spending just 2-4 hours between 40-degrees & 140-degrees Fahrenheit. If you keep your refrigerator closed tight, you should be good for several hours. If you absolutely must open it to retrieve something, plan to get everything you need at the same time.
You should have easy-to-eat dry goods on hand for both meals and snacks. Be sure to consider the children that you may have in the house and keep an extra snack in your emergency kit for them. While adults can deal with a little bit of being hungry, a hungry child can make an outage downright miserable. These snacks don't have to be anything fancy, but you should be sure to occasionally check the expiration dates.
Consider including the following in your emergency food supplies:
- Granola or protein bars
- Trail mix
- Cereal (that can be eaten dry)
- Canned fruit
- Canned chicken or tuna (remember that you may not be able to heat it)
Water is one of the most important things to plan for during a power outage. You should be prepared for 1 gallon of water for each person, each day. If you know that a storm is coming, it’s a good idea to have water for 5 days. It’s a good idea to always have 2-3 days’ worth of water on hand in case of an unexpected power outage.
Since water is often pumped into your home using electricity, be prepared to lose water during an outage, as well. Consider keeping a rain barrel under a gutter to provide water to flush toilets; just remember not to drink from it.
When the Power is Out for More than Several Hours
Under decent conditions, most power companies get the power up and running again fairly quickly. If you are without power for more than 4-6 hours, it’s often because there is a major obstacle that will make restoring power challenging and more time-consuming. This might be the weather itself, or it might be a physical barrier. It can also be a lack of access to parts or a shortage of personnel to make the repairs. Whatever the case may be, you may need to start thinking long term.
What Needs to Function?
If you have a basement and it's pouring outside, do you need a pump to run? If so, you should invest in a generator that can meet that need. Be sure to have fuel on hand, and never run the generator indoors. It should be a good distance from your home with the exhaust pointed away from the house.
Does anyone in your house have a medical condition? Make sure that you have spare batteries or battery-powered chargers for any insulin pumps or other medical devices. If someone has a need that requires a full electrical connection, invest in a generator.
If you live in a city, a long-term power outage can cause people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. Police can be stretched thin, and emergency services can be very busy. Consider the needs of your family and ensure that you have safety plans in place that allow you to feel comfortable during this kind of event. For some, this may be as simple as ensuring that there are deadbolts on every door and good locks or sturdy windows. Whatever you feel comfortable with, everyone should have access to a radio and a way to call for help.
While power outages can be dangerous, taking a few steps to plan for an outage can prevent many of the most common catastrophes:
- Pack an emergency kit & ensure that everyone knows where it is
- Have a plan to maintain communication for weather updates and to call for help or report your outage
- Prepare to keep everyone appropriately warm or cool without your furnace or air conditioner
- Ensure that food and water are available and safe to consume
- Have a safety plan for medical needs, caring for your property, and keeping your loved ones secure
Power outages are an unavoidable part of life. Most of the time they are a short-lived nuisance, but occasionally they can become a serious threat. Proper planning can keep you and your family safe, secure, and comfortable.