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We’ve all been through power outages and the first thing most of us wonder is how long is this going to last? Statistically, the average outage lasts 2 to 3 hours. In some cases that can extend to days and even weeks and months. Regardless of the duration, we eventually get around to thinking about the food in our refrigerator and freezer.
According to the CDC, food will still be safe in a refrigerator up to 4 hours and 48 hours in a freezer filled with frozen foods. If the freezer is only half full the CDC cuts that time to 24 hours. After that food starts to spoil.
There are various ways to extend the shelf-life of those temperature sensitive foods, and some other things to do with your food as you deal with everything else occupying your time and attention when the power is out.
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1. Don’t Open the Fridge Just Yet
Standing in front of an open fridge or freezer and wondering what you’re going to do with all this stuff is just accelerating the time to spoilage. If you want to extend the time a bit in the fridge, transfer some frozen foods to the fridge, but try to do it quickly and close the door.
You’ve essentially added some ice substitutes to your refrigerator and you may have bought yourself another 4 hours of fridge time bringing the time to refrigerator spoilage up to 8 hours.
2. Put Some Ice in the Fridge and the Freezer
Adding ice will also extend the “safe-time” for foods requiring refrigeration or freezing. This assumes you can find a place where you can still buy ice. Ice blocks are best, ice cubes are okay and dry-ice is better but as time goes on that stuff will be hard to find.
3. Use Winter to Your Advantage
If your outage happens in winter you can move stuff to the garage, back porch or even outside in a cooler or box. Everything might end up freezing depending on the temperature but you’ll extend the spoilage time. You’ll also be doing a lot to figure out how to keep warm when the power is out in winter, but at least you’ll have a fighting chance with the food.
4. Eat That Stuff First
Eventually you’ll have to eat and you’ll probably be cooking outside or some other way that doesn’t require electricity. When you do get around to eating, eat the refrigerated foods first and then start working on the frozen stuff. Leave the pantry foods for later if the outage continues.
5. Understand What Doesn’t Require Steady Refrigeration
Maybe it’s because our Mom’s and Dad’s always did it, or we just never thought about it but there are 8 Foods You Should Never Put In The Refrigerator to begin with. Other foods are tolerant of room temperature at least for a day or two.
Here’s the list of common foods that just never really required refrigeration:
- Sauces like steak sauce, BBQ sauce, soy sauce, hot sauce
- Vinegar and oil based salad dressings
- Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit
- Tropical fruits like Kiwi, bananas, mangoes and pineapples
- Stone fruits like peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots
- Other fruits like apples, avocado, pears and bananas
- Berries like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries
- Vegetables like peppers, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes and tomatoes
- Honey and syrups
- Squash like butternut squash, spaghetti squash, cucumbers, and zucchini
- Pickled vegetables
If you’re concerned about power outages, or if they happen frequently you might want to get those things out of the fridge on a permanent basis. It will sure give you a lot more room in your refrigerator for those leftovers we usually never eat.
6. Remember the Foods That Can Tolerate Room Temperature
Farmers seem to know this better than the rest of us. Here’s what they do:
- Store your butter in a butter dish on the counter or table. It will be good for a day or two. Placing it in a butter crock which uses a little water to keep the air from reaching the butter can extend that to a few days.
- Eggs are not refrigerated in Europe. Then again, they are not washed after harvesting from the nests. In the U.S. the FDA requires that eggs be washed before sale. This is to counteract the threat of Salmonella from the chicken droppings that sometimes contaminate the outer shells. Even then, eggs can last for a day or two out of the fridge. If you have access to farm raised eggs –don’t wash them and you can keep them on the counter for 2 to 3 weeks.
- Homemade mozzarella cheese can be kept at room temperature for up to a week. It has to be freshly made however, not store-bought.
Speaking of stores, the grocery store provides some very good clues about what doesn’t have to be refrigerated. On a fundamental level, if you bought it unrefrigerated it can most likely be stored without refrigeration. There’s always the caveat of “Refrigerate after opening,” but if it doesn’t say that on the label there’s a good chance it will last for a while without refrigeration.
7. Remember Slow Cooking
You most likely won’t be able to plug in a Crockpot but you can slow-simmer soups and stews for days over a low, steady fire. Pioneers cooked a perpetual soup sometimes known as Skillagalee that was a broth of vegetables and meats that simply simmered for days. We all gotta eat and the slow simmering will be the food safe way to go.
8. Quickly Preserve the Foods
In the grand scheme of things we’ll all have plenty to do during an extended power outage, but if you can’t stand the thought of losing any of your refrigerated or frozen foods you can take some quick steps to preserve them.
Here are some preservation techniques to consider:
All of these methods require time, equipment and some other ingredients like salt and vinegar, but when the Internet is down and there’s nothing to watch on TV you might find you have lots of time on your hands.
Which method you choose is up to you but any of them will allow you to store food without refrigeration or freezing. Each of the above preservation methods are linked to articles on how to do it.
9. Generate Your Own Power
The ability to generate your own power is a good backup plan for all sorts of reasons. There are various ways to do it depending on your level of concern and your budget. Here are some of the basics:
A duel fuel generator that works on gasoline or propane can provide you a significant amount of power. A lot depends on the size of the generator and your spare fuel storage. Whole house generators run at about 10,000 watts and more. Smaller generators that allow you to power some lights and appliances like a refrigerator run between 4,000 to 6,000 watts.
If you live in area subject to frequent power outages you probably already have one. They’re priced from $500 to $2,500 depending on the wattage, brand and fuel types.
There’s a solar solution for everything and a solar generator combined with solar panels can not only generate a lot of power, but they can be used indoors without the risk of carbon monoxide exhaust.
These solar kits are a bit pricey, but as a backup for electric power generation they are an excellent option because they never run out of fuel as long as they’re recharged by the sun.
12 Volt Refrigerators
There are refrigerators that can run off of a 12-volt battery. Most are designed for RV use but every vehicle has a 12-volt battery and in a pinch you could hook up one of these to your car battery. You could also have a 12-volt deep cycle battery or two in reserve to power this fridge. Add a couple of solar panels and you can recharge your battery with the sun.
Alternatives to Electrical Refrigeration and Freezing
There are ways to refrigerate foods that don’t require electricity. Some have been around a long time and others are relatively new inventions. Here are some possibilities to consider:
This is a refrigerator/freezer that runs on propane. It once again assumes you have a good store of propane on hand but with average use it will run for 10 days on a standard 20-gallon tank of propane.
They’re not cheap and most people who have one use them on a regular basis in an off-grid living situation. In those instances they run the propane fridge connected to a larger, whole-house 500-gallon propane tank.
Improvised Winter Ice-Box
You can construct an ice-box to store your food outdoors in winter. It’s easy to build and here’s a link to a video for how to build one. Keeping animals out is the primary challenge but if you have an unheated back or front porch or a detached garage things get easier.
Winter Ice Blocks
Another quick and easy option is to freeze water in empty 1-gallon milk jugs. You then take the frozen jugs and simply place them around your refrigerator. You’ll have to keep some jugs outside freezing but just replace them as they thaw, and refreeze. This will give you the functionality of the old-fashioned ice boxes that were used before electricity.
If you can, keep a thermometer in the fridge to make sure you’re staying in the 32 to 40 degree F. range that’s ideal for refrigeration. If you’re too hot, try adding more frozen jugs.
It takes a while to dig a root cellar but if you’re the type who plans ahead you might want to think about digging one. In some homes the basement has many of the characteristics of a root cellar. If you have a basement that runs cold all the time, that may be an option.
It’s recommended that a root cellar maintain a temperature between 32 to 40 degrees F. If your basement doesn’t hold those temperatures but is still cooler than the upper floors, it may still be a better place to store your food during an outage –at least for a while.
Smartshield Insulation Around the Fridge
There’s a brand of thermal blanket called Smartshield that provides exceptional insulating properties. This is a primitive approach but wrapping your refrigerator with some Smartshield insulation will keep everything colder longer.
How long it will keep things cool depends on the temperature in your home, but it will be longer than a fridge without it. It’s not terribly expensive and you can use it for a lot of other things as well.
A Spring-Creek Ice Box
If you happen to live in close proximity to a cold water, spring-creek you’re in luck. There are ways to build an ice box that sits in the bed of a shallow spring-creek that will keep foods cold the way our pioneer ancestors used to do.
A quick solution is to use a metal milk storage box that dairies used to deliver milk to homes. You could also use a large, empty milk can. The lid fits tightly to keep animals and bugs out and it will act as a natural refrigerator in the creek.
A Regular Cooler
You could also transfer your refrigerated foods to a standard cooler and throw some ice on top or add some frozen ice bottles if its winter. This will get you through a day or two which is beyond the average 2 to 3 hour duration for an outage.
It’s All About Duration
How long you have to live without electricity will determine how robust your solutions need to be. Quite frankly, if you are going into weeks and months without refrigeration it would probably make sense to simply stop buying or storing foods that require refrigeration or freezing.
Then again, people who have to keep insulin under refrigeration or things like baby formula may need to find good, long-term solutions for long duration outages. If that’s the case you should definitely consider some of the more robust solutions like propane refrigerators or solar generators to keep things cold.
Hopefully the outages we experience will be in the short duration measured in hours. But if a pattern of brownouts and blackouts begins to emerge it may be wise to think about some of these alternatives and have them in place before it happens.
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