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An aging infrastructure, frequent storms, planned outages to reduce the risk of wildfires, and an ever-increasing demand for electricity are all combining to make blackouts more commonplace in the U.S.
Rating the nation’s energy infrastructure at a “D,” the American Society of Civil Engineers noted in a 2017 report that the electric transmission and distribution lines, which were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, are at full capacity. And problems with sustaining that aging grid have only worsened since then.
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According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), there are about 3,000 electric distribution systems serving roughly 155 million customers in the United States. A November 2020 EIA report reveals that electric customers experienced an average of five hours of service interruptions in 2019. That average includes 3.2 hours during major events (such as hurricanes or snowstorms).
For a growing number of Americans, power outages are not a matter of “if” but “when” and “how long.” The initial steps you take during a blackout can make a difference in terms of the safety of your home, your belongings, and the people who live there.
Here are the first 10 things you should do in a blackout:
1. Determine The Cause
Is the outage affecting your neighbors or just your home? If it is just your home, there could be a number of reasons, from a blown circuit breaker to an animal chewing on your wires.
Common causes of neighborhood outages include wind and ice damage from storms and grid failures during high usage times such as heatwaves. If the problem appears to be widespread, contact your power company to find out if they are aware of the problem and, if so, see if they have an estimate of the repair time. If you see a downed power-line, stay away from it and report it to your local authorities.
The events of 2020 have us all on edge, but another possibility to consider is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event. EMPs are intense bursts of energy that can occur naturally from the sun blasting charged particles or human-made sources like a nuclear explosion.
Depending on the cause and extent of an EMP event, there could be short-term regional outages or long-term national chaos. Here’s how to tell if it’s an EMP or a power outage.
2. Contact Family Members
A widespread outage will cause streetlights and traffic lights to go out, making driving unsafe in many cases. If you have family members away from home, it might be safer for them to stay put for a while. You should have an emergency contact plan in place to follow in case the current situation worsens.
3. Prepare for Power Surges
When the electricity comes back on, it can cause a powerful and damaging surge. You should already have your sensitive electronics plugged into surge protectors.
Even so, it’s a good idea to unplug electronics and kitchen appliances for added protection. Turn down your thermostat to protect your HVAC system from a surge as well.
Tip: Remember, you can use your car battery when it comes to charging your devices.
4. Conserve Alternate Power Sources
Use your batteries and chargers efficiently to help them last as long as possible. For example, turn off your phone when you’re not using it.
Also, disable any power-consuming apps, switch to low power mode, and turn off WIFI to save battery life. Select one room where people—and pets—can spend most of their time together. Only light or warm this area.
Tip: You can get power from a phone line during a blackout.
5. Keep Refrigerator and Freezer Doors Closed
Only open your refrigerator and freezer doors when necessary. An unopened refrigerator will stay cold for about four hours without power. A full freezer will maintain its temperature for about 48 hours.
Eat perishable foods first. Discard refrigerated poultry, fish, meat, eggs, and leftovers after four hours without power. Go by the “when in doubt, throw it out” rule for food spoilage. Here are more guidelines for food safety during a blackout.
Related Article: 6 Ways To Keep Your Food Cold Without Electricity
6. Fill the Bathtub, Sinks, and Buckets With Water
In a widespread outage, municipal water may be unsafe to drink or may stop flowing altogether.
When you quickly fill large containers with water, you’ll have a supply for washing, drinking, and flushing the toilet. If you are not sure if the water is safe to use for drinking or cooking purposes, boil it first.
Tip: You could have 40 gallons or more of water in your water heater.
7. Stay Warm
Winter storms are common culprits behind many power outages. Layer up your clothing and use blankets to conserve emergency heating sources (like wood).
Capture any warmth from the sun that you can by closing all curtains and shades except those on south-facing windows. Also, close window coverings at night to trap heat. Seal any doorways or windowsills that may be leaking air.
Related Article: 17 Ways You Can Stay Warm When The Power Goes Out
8. Prevent Burst Pipes
An easy way to keep pipes from freezing during a power outage is to keep a small stream of water flowing through your faucets.
For a long-term outage during cold weather, you may need to drain your electric water heater and winterize your plumbing system with an antifreeze solution.
Tip: A gas water heater will still work during a power outage, but it may have an electric ignition. Check the appliance instructions. If you do drain a gas water heater, you need to turn off the pilot. Call your gas company when you are ready to re-light it.
9. Make Safety a Priority
Power outages can cause many safety hazards. Here are a few of them to watch out for:
- Increased fire risk. Never leave candles and kerosene lamps burning unattended. Keep flames away from clothing, furniture, and curtains.
- Poisoning. The indoor use of generators, camp stoves, and charcoal grills can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Use them outdoors and at least 20 feet away from doors and windows. Never use a gas range or oven to heat your home. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, and colorless gas that can build up to lethal levels in unventilated areas.
- Electrocution. Generators can pose an electrocution risk when not used properly. Here are safety guidelines from the Red Cross for generator use during a power outage.
10. Know When You Need To Leave Your Home
Older adults and very young children are especially vulnerable to extreme heat or cold that might result from a long-term blackout.
Even if your family members are safe at home, a neighbor may not be doing well. Check to see if you can be of assistance, especially if your neighbors are elderly.
At some point, it may become necessary to seek shelter at a community-run emergency center. Assuming the roads are safe, take your emergency survival kit, including medications, with you and let friends and family know where you are going.
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