How to prepare for power outages

Written by:
August 7, 2020

How to prepare for power outages

In the first hour of an average day, you probably get woken by an alarm clock, check your smartphone, sip on a cup of coffee while watching the news, and rinse off in a hot shower. Each one of those activities can only be enjoyed thanks to our modern system of electricity.

Unfortunately for us and the luxurious way of life we've grown accustomed to, power outages come with the territory of being connected to grids—and those outages are on the rise. Pew Charitable Trusts concluded in a 2015 study that the United States experiences more power outages than any other developed nation in the world. This is largely due to two factors: our outdated electrical grid, much of which was put into place before World War II and isn't able to handle increased demand; and extreme weather events.

Climate Central, an organization that conducts scientific research on climate change, found that severe weather caused 80% of power outages over nine years. These extreme weather events can be everything from a hurricane to a tornado to subzero freezes to heatwaves. With hurricane season upon us, and heat waves blanketing large swaths of the country, it seems as good a time as any to highlight ways to prepare for the power outages that are most certainly to come.

Stacker has rounded up 50 ways to prepare for power outages. Using data from government websites, insurance firms, and news sources, we've compiled a comprehensive "loss of electricity" guide. From getting together an emergency outage kit to navigating food safety and planning for possible evacuations, the following list is sure to leave you feeling much more prepared the next time your lights flicker and cut out.

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Put together an emergency outage kit

The Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents all investor-owned electric companies in the United States, recommends putting together an emergency outage kit. While their list has more than a couple of dozen items on it, you'd do best to start with the essentials: flashlights, candles, matches, a battery-powered radio, and several blankets.

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Take an inventory of electronic items

As you set out to prepare your emergency outage kit, you'd do well to take an inventory of all the essential items in your house that rely on electricity to run. This will help you plan for the number and size(s) of batteries your kit should include and other energy sources (like a generator) you might need to rely on in the short run.

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Purchase a generator

Power loss is often a result of extreme weather, and depending on the time of year, it might be impossible for you to go for hours or days without heat or air conditioning. Many homeowners would do well to buy a generator of a size and type that would meet their household's needs. Consumer Reports has put together a comprehensive guide for those in the market for a generator.

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Coolcaesar // Wikimedia Commons

Invest in a Mule Light

Those who are truly prepared for a power outage also have as many light sources as possible on hand. While traditional flashlights and candles are great options, a Mule Light, which is part glow stick part flashlight, is possibly the best. When used with its two included battery packs, the Mule Light has a use time of over 600 hours and is considered exceptionally bright.

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Update your contact information with the electric company

In the event of a power outage, your power company will be able to serve you faster if all of your contact information is up to date. Calling your provider ahead of time to update your phone number and e-mail address could potentially save you a huge headache down the line.

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Install surge protectors

Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company urges clients to think of surge protectors like "inexpensive insurance for [their] priciest electronic items." These small, often cheap, devices can be plugged into your appliances in order to protect them from voltage spikes that happen when the power eventually flickers back on. Install them on your most valuable and pricy electronics like your computer, TV, and refrigerator.

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Install carbon monoxide detectors

One lesser-known aspect of power outages is the increased risk for carbon monoxide poisoning while the electricity is out or immediately after it's turned back on. Generators or cooking instruments can cause an excess of carbon monoxide, a dangerous, deadly gas (like a grill). Installing carbon monoxide detectors—especially those that are battery powered–—all over your house well before a power outage could end up saving your life.

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Sign up for weather alerts

Weather caused 80% of the power outages between 2003 and 2012, according to Climate Central. As climate change increases the number of extreme weather events we see within a year, it stands to reason that the number of power outages we see in the space of a year will increase as well. Do yourself a favor, and subscribe to your local weather alerts so that you can be in the know when these types of events are expected.

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Know the risks in your area

Along with subscribing to weather alerts, be sure to research the weather risks in your area. Do you live in a hurricane or tornado zone? Is your community prone to extreme cold or heat that could affect the reliability of the power? Knowing what you're up against, and how often to expect power outages, is possibly the best thing you could do for yourself when it comes to being prepared.

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Refill your first aid kit

We all hope that there'd be no major injuries or health issues during a power outage, but reality doesn't always play out that nicely. Check your family's first aid kit and make sure it's refreshed with everything you could need, from band-aids to ace bandages. While you're at it, check the medicine cabinet and make sure you have a decent supply of all over-the-counter medications.

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Charge your cell phone

If you know ahead of time that a power outage is likely, for example, in an impending hurricane or snowstorm, charge your cell phone and all other electronic devices that can be used for communication (e.g., iPads, laptop computers) completely. Additionally, charge any portable batteries you may have around the house.

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Create a physical list of important contacts

Without the assistance of our cell phones or the internet, many of us would struggle to recall the numbers of those we'd need to contact in an emergency. Creating a physical list of these numbers, including those like your physician, poison control, and immediate family members, and posting it in an easy-to-find place, like the side of the fridge, can come in incredibly handy when these assistive technologies are unable to help.

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Consider a landline

Even if your cell phone is fully charged before a massive power outage, it's possible that it would end up unusable. Many cell towers have generators that only provide a few extra hours of power, and during events like Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, every cell tower in the NYC-region failed. However, corded landline phones tend to work during most power outages, as they are directly linked to power companies that have better backup generators.

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Fill your gas tank

Another task to complete is to fill your gas tank if you know a major storm is likely to knock out your power. Many gas stations won't be open during city-wide power outages, so if your tank isn't filled, you may find yourself stuck at home.

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Stock up on potable water

Many people don't think about the fact that their water supply could be affected by a power outage depending on its source. The best way to ensure you can stay hydrated and healthy during electricity loss of any length is by stocking up on purified, drinkable water. A smart rule of thumb is one gallon per person per day.

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Have a way to purify water

Depending on your situation, you may not be able to keep more than a day's drinkable water on hand. As such, it's important to have other ways to purify water available. This can include everything from purification tablets to a more technical system like a LifeStraw.

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Squirrel away non-perishable food

Stock up on non-perishable food that doesn't require refrigeration, an oven, stovetop, or microwave to prepare. If a power outage lasts more than a couple of hours, things like canned fruit and tuna, meal replacement bars, and veggies that can last at room temperature (avocados, cucumbers, and peppers) are great things to have on hand.

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Review alternative cooking options

If you have reason to believe that you may be without power for a long stretch of time, you might want to consider alternative cooking options such as a wood-burning stove, a portable stove, or a small grill (weather permitting), in order to diversify your meals. Read up on the various options, acquire all the equipment you may need, and establish a well-ventilated space that can serve as your temporary kitchen.

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Lower fridge and freezer temps

You may not be able to eat any of your refrigerated or frozen food during a power outage, but you can take extra steps to ensure that it isn't spoiled before the electricity comes back on. Start by lowering the temperature of both your freezer and your refrigerator. Food in the fridge can stay cold for up to four hours and a full freezer can last for 48 hours (24 hours for a half-filled freezer), according to the USDA, but making temps extra chilly ahead of time may help you eke out an extra hour or two.

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Consider a sanitation plan

Along with water supply, your sewage system may stop working in the event of a power outage. As a result, you'll have to think of other ways to deal with the waste created by your household. One option is a portable toilet, and another is a temporary toilet that can be made with materials from the local hardware store.

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Stock up on sanitization supplies

Even during a major electrical outage, it's important to keep your body and home clean in order to lower the risk of disease and the spread of germs. If you don't have showers or buckets of bleach to rely on, you'll need other supplies like hand sanitizer, baby wipes, and spray disinfectants to get the job done.

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Buy sleeping bags

If electricity outages are common in your area, you might consider investing in some heavy-duty sleeping bags for when you're forced to weather colder nights without any power. In particular, look for those marked "subzero" as they'll offer the most warmth and can even be used outdoors in a pinch.

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Make a medical plan

Many Americans rely on electric or battery-operated medical devices, like breathing machines, home dialysis equipment, or electric wheelchairs. If this is you or someone in your household, it is vital that you have a plan in place should the electricity go out. Speak with your doctor about other power sources or alternative equipment, and ensure that your electricity company knows and puts you on a "high priority" restoration list if they have one.

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Know how to handle temperature-controlled medications

While you may not rely on electric medical devices, you or someone in your household may take medication that has to be strictly temperature controlled. Talk with your doctor to come up with a plan in case of an emergency outage and get clear directions on how long unrefrigerated medication can be safely consumed.

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Consider the pets

While you're likely considering the needs of all of your human family members in light of a power outage, don't forget the furry friends. If electricity loss seems likely, stock up on pet food, any necessary medications, and ensure that you have drinkable water for those four-legged members as well.

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Prepare some entertainment

The first 30 minutes or so of a power outage may seem adventurous and exciting, but as the hours drag on, things are sure to get boring quickly. Be sure to line up some entertainment options, like board games, physical books, and art supplies that don't require electricity. Naples Daily News put together an extensive list of screen-free entertainment options for younger kids, a group that's notoriously difficult to keep occupied.

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Play 'lights out' with the kids

The dark can be a scary thing for young children. One way to ease their terror when it comes to possible power outages is to play a "lights out" game. To play, turn all the lights off in a portion of your house and search together for an easily located flashlight– transforming the search into a fun, controlled game, can help ease little ones' fears and keep emotions calm when the lights really do go out.

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Have an evacuation plan

If a power outage is expected due to an extreme weather event, be sure to have an evacuation plan in place. If conditions necessitate a move, know where you'd go, how'd you'd get there, and how long you could stay. Even if you aren't required to leave the area, it can be a good idea to have a backup plan if your generator fails, and you're stuck without air conditioning or heat.

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Know where important personal documents are located

In the event of an evacuation, the Red Cross recommends that you take copies of your household's important personal documents with you. This includes things like birth certificates, passports, lease or deed documents, and insurance policies. Knowing where all these things are located beforehand, and gathering them in an easy to access place, is crucial in case of a power outage.

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Learn how to manually open your garage door

Even the most prepared evacuation plans may prove ineffective if you can't get the car out of the garage. Often, we rely on electronic openers to save time and hassle, but when those are no longer an option, you'll be glad you've learned how to open the door manually.

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Have emergency cash on hand

During a long-term power outage, ATMs and credit card machines may cease working. Withdrawing a little emergency cash and keeping it close at hand could be crucial when it comes to purchasing necessities for yourself and your household.

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Download the American Red Cross Emergency Alerts app

The American Red Cross has an Emergency: Alerts app for iPhones and Androids that allows you to monitor the weather conditions in your area. The app alerts you to possible problems, provides you with preparation checklists, and assists you in contacting emergency crews and loved ones. Download the app on your phone before disaster strikes to stay abreast of any changes in the situation and feel more confident in your own preparedness.

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Report the outage

When you experience a loss of power, be sure to report it to your electric company right away. Don't rely on neighbors or other community members to do this for you—after all, the faster they know you're without electricity, the sooner they'll be able to restore it. A quick Google search should direct you to the hotline for the power companies in your area.

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Take note of the time

Knowing exactly when the electricity went out can be incredibly important when it comes to making decisions about when to throw out frozen food or how long temperature-controlled medications are still viable. So it's important to note the exact time the power goes out and write it down in a place that will be easy to find later.

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Unplug all unnecessary appliances

Immediately after the power goes out, walk around your home and outdoor space, and unplug or turn off all unnecessary appliances. This ensures that when power returns, you won't experience a circuit overload that could lead to a second outage. Leaving one small appliance, like a lamp, plugged in and turned on, will let you know when electricity has returned.

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Discard spoiled food

Once frozen or refrigerated food is held above 40 degrees for more than two hours, the USDA largely considers it unsafe to eat. Individual items can be tested with a food thermometer, but it's best to compost or discard any questionable items out when in doubt. To simplify your decisions, an itemized safety list can be found on the Food Safety website.

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Follow safe generator practices

If you decide to use a generator during a power outage, be sure to follow all safety practices. The Red Cross recommends using a generator in a well-ventilated area, keeping it dry, and never plugging it into a wall outlet in an attempt to power the entire house, as this practice greatly increases the risk of electrocution.

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Report downed power lines

If you're headed outside following a power outage, you may run across a downed power line or two. For safety's sake, always assume these lines are live and avoid them completely. Call 9-1-1 to report any downed lines so that technicians with the proper gear can be dispatched to deal with them.

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Protect electric crews making repairs

If you are headed out for essentials after a massive power outage, respect and protect electric crews and line workers as they repair downed power lines. Slow down and move over a lane as you drive past, and honor any additional safety requests they make of you and your household.

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Eliminate all unnecessary travel

As a general rule of thumb, it's best to eliminate all unnecessary travel during a city-wide power outage. As traffic lights will be out, roadways will be more congested and traffic patterns more haphazard. This leads to an increased risk of car accidents.

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Keep cool

If a power loss occurs during warm weather, make every effort to stay cool. Drink ample amounts of fluids, close the blinds in your home to keep the sun out, avoid strenuous physical activities, and seek air conditioning in public places.

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...or keep warm

On the other hand, losing power during the cooler months of the year can make it difficult to keep warm. Layer up, gather your household in a common space, avoid alcoholic beverages, and allow as much sun in your home as possible during daylight hours.

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Check on your neighbors

Suppose it's safe to—check on those around you, especially if your neighbors are elderly or have small children. Not everyone will be as prepared as they hope to be when an event like this happens, and sharing your supplies could save someone's life, or at least make it much more comfortable.

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Tune in to radio broadcasts

Use the battery or solar-powered radio in your emergency outage kit to stay up to date on your community's situation. This means everything from monitoring weather conditions to listening for updates about where power has been restored.

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Check your property for damage

As with any type of emergency or natural disaster, it's important to check your property for damage as soon as it's safe or things return to normal. Look for things like fallen trees that could be hazardous or prevent electricity from being fully restored.

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Turn on appliances slowly

When the power finally turns back on, you may be tempted to turn on all your appliances and electronics right away. However, it's important to allow the system time to stabilize. Turn on or plug in only a few devices at a time to give the system time to adjust.

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Complete manual resets

It may seem like a no brainer, but many people forget to manually reset things like clocks, alarms, and routers after the power is restored. Take 15 minutes and walk around your house, resetting all these types of things in one fell swoop to save yourself a headache later on.

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Reconnect the garage door to the opener

If you opened your garage door manually during a power outage, you'd likely have to reconnect the door to its opener. Check the user manual or manufacturer's booklet for instructions on how to do so.

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Restock your emergency kit

Once the power has returned, be sure to check and restock your emergency kit right away. Don't put it off, thinking you'll get to it in a day or two, as you likely won't, and may get caught the next time around without the supplies you desperately need.

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Take care of yourself

Whether the loss of power is an emergency situation lasting for days on end or a minor inconvenience of just a few hours, it can add a great deal of stress to our already busy lives. Be sure to take care of yourself during and after the restoration of power. Give yourself a moment to breathe and congratulate yourself on how prepared you were.

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