For most of the year, power outages are a minor inconvenience at worst, or even, depending on how you look at it, a respite from the unrelenting incursion of technology into every aspect of our lives. A power outage in the summertime can provide a good excuse to cook outside or sit out and look at the stars.
In the winter, though, when you rely on your power to keep you warm, an outage can be much more serious. That’s why it’s vitally important to prepare in advance for the loss of electricity, and to know how to keep yourself, your family, and your home safe.
Make sure that you are well supplied with flashlights, candles, matches, spare batteries, a battery-powered radio, food, a camp stove with bottled fuel, a manual can opener, bottled water, plenty of warm, dry clothing and blankets, a back-up heating source, and plenty of heating fuel. Puzzles, games, books, and other low-tech entertainment will also be a welcome distraction, especially if there are children or teens in the home.
If the power-outage is short-lived, you may be able to get by with just the heat stored up in your home, some blankets, and a few layers of warm, dry, loose-fitting clothes. Don’t forget a hat and, if the temperatures really drop, some mittens and a scarf for good measure.
After a few hours, though, things may start to get uncomfortable, especially if the temperatures outside are exceptionally low. If your home is sufficiently weatherized, with adequate insulation, weather stripping around door, and good, energy-saving windows, it will take longer to reach this point. Eventually, though, even the hardiest will need to warm up with a fire or space heater. If you have a fireplace or wood stove, ensure that it is in safe working order. If you do not have a fireplace or wood stove, purchase a non-electric space heater and keep it in an accessible location. There are many varieties available, and most run on propane or kerosene. No matter what your emergency heating source is, be sure that you have enough fuel on hand to use it for several days, if need be.
While they can be a lifesaver, these forms of heating are also risky. Be sure to keep flammable materials well away from your heater or fireplace, and to properly ventilate the area so you don’t succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.
The most efficient plan of action during an outage is to choose one room to heat, then seal off the rest of the house.
When a home loses heat, the biggest threat is to the plumbing. Exposed pipes can easily freeze up and burst. The problem is compounded in rural areas that are dependent on well water. City residents can easily leave a trickle of water running to safeguard against frozen pipes, but a home that’s dependent on an electric well will be without running water for the duration of the outage. The easiest and most important step you can take toward protecting your pipes is to wrap them in insulation or, barring that, layers of newspapers covered in plastic wrap. If pipes do freeze, remove the insulation, turn on all faucets, and pour hot water over the pipes, starting where they are most exposed to the cold. You can use a camp stove to heat the water. In the absence of running water in your home, use melted snow. If you discover frozen pipes after the power has returned, a hair dryer is a great way to get things moving again.
If you know a bad storm is on the way, set your refrigerator and freezer to their coldest settings. If you do not open the doors during a power outage, the food inside of a full refrigerator will stay cold for up to 24 hours. Items in a packed freezer will stay frozen for 48 hours, or 24 hours if it is only half-full.
If the outage goes on for more than a day, you can save some food by storing it in a cooler, or even burying it in the snow outside, if the temperatures are cold enough (consistently below 40° F). If bagged ice isn’t available, snow can also be used to fill a cooler.
If you know your water doesn’t work without electricity, it’s a good practice to fill your bathtub with water before every big storm. That way, you’ll have water for washing and other necessities available throughout any outages. If you need to flush the toilet, but the well isn’t working, just pour a pail of water (bottled water, melted snow, or water from the bathtub) into the bowl to make it flush.
If you have an electric garage door opener, make sure you know how to disable it so you can get your car out, if need be.
It’s also a good idea to unplug appliances, such as computers, microwaves, TVs, DVD players, stereos, etc., to protect them against potential power surges once the electricity returns.
If you prepare, and follow these safety rules, losing power in the winter will seem no more difficult than a camping trip.