January 11, 2022
Short-term power outages can happen at any time. Here’s how to prepare for and get through them.
It doesn’t take a disaster to knock out your electricity. A squirrel exploring a transformer or a falling tree branch can suddenly leave you without power for hours or even days. Depending on your family’s needs, going without electricity even briefly is at best inconvenient—or at worst, life-threatening.
You should always have a plan to get through a natural disaster. But what about unexpected neighborhood power failures? How do you prepare for those? And what’s the best way to stay safe? Here’s a checklist of what to do before, during, and after a short-term power outage:
Before the power goes out
The proverb says, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” So make sure you’re ready before the power goes out:
- Take inventory. Write down everything you need that requires electric power (medical equipment, cell phones, radios, etc.). Have enough batteries or charged-up portable power banks to run those devices up to two days. Have flashlights with fresh batteries for every family member. Work with your medical providers to create a plan to power medical devices and refrigerate medicines.
- Write down important information. Do you keep contact info on your phone? What if your power fails right when your phone battery dies? To be safe, maintain a written list of contacts: neighbors, doctors, pharmacies, relatives, and friends.
- Know how to open your garage door. Your garage door opener won’t work without power. And if your car is stuck in your garage, you could be trapped at home. Review your garage-door opener instructions and practice opening and closing the door manually.
- Install surge protectors. Sometimes when power returns, surges can damage electronics. So plug in TVs, computers, etc. into surge-protected power strips.
- Plan for fun. Line up some non-electric family fun. A power failure is the perfect time for jigsaw puzzles, board and card games, and simple crafts. Weather permitting, you could take a walk, visit a park, or just play outside.
- Consider buying a generator. Do you live in a single-family home? The best way to handle a power outage is with a power generator. Generators aren’t cheap; you can spend between $800 and $15,000 or more (depending on whether it’s portable or permanently installed). But if you can afford it, a generator may be ideal—for example, if you have medical equipment that can’t run on batteries. Here is a detailed guide to generators.
When the power goes out
No power? Here’s how to get through it safely:
- Report the outage. Don't assume anyone else called it in. The more who report it, the easier it is for your utility to pinpoint the problem.
- Use flashlights. Candlelight is romantic, but candles are a fire hazard. Use flashlights instead. To help preserve your phone’s battery, don’t use your flashlight app.
- Manage your meds. If your power is out for over 24 hours, you may need to discard temperature-sensitive meds that you can’t keep cold. Call your doctor or pharmacist if you need advice.
- Use your generator—outdoors. If you have a portable, gas-powered generator, now is the time to use it. But keep it at least 20 feet away from windows and doors while it’s running. Warning: Never run a generator inside a house or garage—even with open doors. Carbon monoxide from the exhaust can become a deadly situation without warning.
- Avoid using devices. Power outages aren’t the time to drain your phone battery playing Angry Birds. You don’t know how long outages may last, so conserve power. Play a board game or work on a puzzle.
- Keep the fridge and freezer closed. A closed fridge can keep food cold for four to eight hours. A full freezer can keep food frozen for about 48 hours—if it stays closed. Move perishable food from the fridge into portable coolers with ice. Check food temperature with a thermometer. Throw out anything that reaches over 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours.
- Cook with fire—outside. A gas or charcoal grill is a great way to cook during a power outage. But grills and camp stoves also produce carbon monoxide.
- Warning: Never use grills or camp stoves in a house or a garage—or within 15 feet of doors or windows.
- Use gas only for cooking. Do you have a natural gas stove and oven? If so, use them only for cooking—never for heat.
When the power comes back
When power is restored, take stock, reset, and get ready for the next outage:
- Check your lights, appliances, and devices. Turn on and test your lights, appliances, and devices to ensure they’re working properly. Make sure you have fresh batteries on hand for the next power failure.
- Check your fridge and freezer. Use your thermometer to ensure food is safe: Below 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) for frozen food and 40 degrees or less for items in the fridge. Get rid of whatever is too warm—or if it looks or smells bad.
- Reset your garage door opener to work automatically.
In the modern world, going without electricity is a serious problem. By being smart before, during, and after a power outage, you and your family can get through it safely and securely.