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Severe weather fueled by climate change has changed a power outage from more of a “what to do if it happens” to a “what to do when it happens” scenario.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average American home clocked more than eight hours without power in 2020. That number is more than twice the outage time of 2013, the year the EIA began compiling electricity reliability data. The report cites weather as the leading cause of power outages.
Even a blackout of a few hours can disrupt our lives. However, when an outage lasts days rather than hours, it becomes much more than an inconvenience. It can disrupt utilities, close businesses, and transportation services, and prevent the use of medical equipment.
More than 4.5 million homes and businesses lost power during a Texas cold snap in February 2021. At least 246 people died as a direct or indirect result of the crisis as people struggled to survive without heat or medical devices. Hypothermia was the cause for about two-thirds of the deaths, and some experts estimate the death toll to be much higher.
As hurricanes, wildfires, heatwaves, cold snaps, windstorms, and other weather-related events become more frequent and extreme, and our nation contends with an aging infrastructure, knowing steps to take to prepare for a power outage has increased importance.
By definition, a power outage is an unexpected loss of electricity. Even with modern weather forecasting, storms, wildfires, and natural disasters can strike – and then escalate – suddenly and with fury. And, when you add in the risk of cyberattacks on our grid systems, these plans become even more essential.
Fortunately, there are some steps you can take now to help prepare for a power outage. Having these preparations in place will help keep you and your family safe and offer you some valuable peace of mind. Here are 18 things to do before the next blackout.
1. Create a Lights Out Box
You don’t want to be scrambling around in the dark for supplies when the power goes out. Now is the time to gather essentials together in one container, such as a plastic tote or a large duffel bag. Here are some items to place in your lights out box.
- Flashlights and batteries or headlamps for each member of the family
- Candles and lighters or matches
- Battery-powered and solar-powered USB charger
- Puzzles, playing cards, paper, and pen
- First-aid kit
- Bottles of water
- Non-perishable food and snacks
Make sure everyone in the family knows the location of the box so that it is easy to retrieve in a blackout. Check on items in the bag, rotating them, if necessary, once a year.
2. Purchase a Hand-Crank Weather/Emergency Radio
You can place this portable radio in your lights out box or have it ready in a nearby location. Many of these useful radios also operate with solar power. And they have flashlights and USB ports to charge your electronics as well.
3. Store Water
Have on hand at least a three-day supply of water per person (at least one gallon per person per day). Don’t forget your pets! Here are some recommendations for having enough water during an emergency. Also, consider placing a water purifier in your lights out box. This article reviews some of the best options among these products.
4. Invest in Freezer, Refrigerator, and a Food Thermometer
These devices allow you to identify what is safe and unsafe to eat during and after a power outage. Your freezer’s temperature should be at or below 0°F. The refrigerator’s temperature should be at or below 40°F. A food thermometer allows you to test the internal temperature of the perishable food that was in your refrigerator or freezer during a power outage.
You can find other safety tips for refrigerated and frozen food during an outage here.
5. Stock Up On Non-Perishable Foods That Can Be Prepared Without Power
Some options include canned beans, vegetables, and fruit (packed in fruit juice), breakfast cereal, nut butter, crackers, nuts, dried fruit, snack bars, juice, and shelf-stable milk. Make sure you have a hand-operated can opener!
6. Purchase Power Inverters for Your Vehicles
Power inverters are devices that concert the D.C. current from your car or truck into A.C. current that can power some of your devices and appliances.
7. Buy a Portable Generator
A portable generator may be a wise investment, especially if you live in an area that is increasingly affected by severe weather-related events. Depending on the size and type you get, you may be able to keep your lights on and your appliances running for several hours to several days.
Most models are gasoline-powered and need to operate well away from your home due to dangerous fumes. Some options are battery-operated. Here are some of Amazon’s options.
8. Plan Unplugged Activities
Our reliance on electronics for entertainment can make boredom a big problem for all ages during a power outage. You can prepare for a lack of internet access by downloading movies, T.V. shows, and books onto your devices ahead of a storm. But if you want to conserve the limited power you do have, here are some unplugged ideas:
- Card games and board games
- Jigsaw puzzles and word puzzles
- Coloring books and crayons or colored pencils
9. Print Out Your Emergency Contacts and Maps
Many of us keep our family and other emergency contact information on our phones or computers. Having a printed list of names, addresses, and phone numbers is helpful during a blackout. Place the list in your blackout bag along with printed maps of your community in case you need to leave your home quickly during the crisis.
10. Maintain Some Cash On Hand
Some stores may be able to remain open during a power outage, but they will be unable to take electronic payment. Having cash on hand will allow you to purchase supplies in this scenario.
11. Have Battery Back-ups for Medical Equipment
If someone in your family relies on a medical device, research what battery back-ups are available. Your insurance policy may even help pay for it. Also, some power companies have medical priority lists to help people in need get their power restored as soon as possible.
12. Purchase Surge Protectors
When the power comes back on, it can cause a surge that damages your expensive electronics. If the returning voltage rises above a certain level, a surge protector will divert the extra electricity into the outlet’s grounding wire. Another option is to unplug your appliances and electronics during a power outage.
13. Keep Your Car’s Tank At Least Half Full
Gas stations need electricity to power their pumps. While you might find a few that are able to stay open with the use of generators, you won’t be able to depend upon their supply lasting long.
14. Consider a Battery-operated Back-up Sump Pump
If the only thing that comes between you and a flooded basement is an electric sump pump, you may need to consider a battery-powered back-up pump. Here are some of the options.
15. Fill The Tub and Sink With Water
When the power goes out, there is a good chance that the municipal water supply will stop soon. Don’t wait until that happens. Fill your tubs, sinks, and buckets with water to use for washing and flushing the toilet. Also, don’t forget that most homes have at least 40 gallons stored in their water heater.
16. Locate Your Garage Door Release
Show family members where the cord is that disconnects your garage door from the electrical opener. Then, you’ll be able to lift and close the door manually during a power outage.
17. Avoid Frozen Pipes
If your power outage is during cold weather, burst pipes can become an unfortunate result. If your indoor temperatures are nearing freezing, it’s a good idea to drain your plumbing system. Here’s how:
- Turn off your main water supply valve.
- Open your home’s lowest valve (typically the water heater drain valve or an outdoor hose bib).
- Open other home faucets to allow air into the system as pipes drain.
- Plunge sink and bath drains and toilets to clear any water from the traps.
- Plug those drains to stop sewer gases from entering.
Here are more recommendations for preventing frozen pipes from Family Handyman.
18. Stay Calm
In any emergency, it’s essential to stay calm in a blackout. It’s no coincidence that emergency room visits often go up during an extended power outage. Part of this increase is due to traffic light failures and fallen trees.
Another reason is that falls increase in darkened stairways and walkways. As the leading cause of emergency room visits, falls account for more than 8 million emergency room visits each year.
Hopefully, this list of things to do before the next blackout strikes will help you feel that you have at least a slight sense of control over a mostly uncontrollable situation.
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