While some weather events are more likely to cause power outages, they can really happen at any time and for many different reasons. With this checklist, you’ll be well-prepared and know just what to do whenever the lights go out.
At best, a power outage can be a fun (and brief!) adventure, allowing just enough time to light some candles and get cozy. At worst, it can be a life-threatening event or cause serious damage to your property. While you can’t control the weather (or the speed at which the electric company repairs things), the steps below will help you make it through a power outage as safely and comfortably as possible.
Warning: The single most important thing to focus on during a power outage is your body temperature. If it’s extremely cold or hot outside, protecting yourself from those extreme temperatures is the most important thing you can do.
When it cools down in the evening, it creates the perfect conditions for the storms that lead to power outages. In the summer, those warm and cool winds mix, and in the winter, freezing rain accumulates and ices up on power lines.
This means power outages often occur after dark. Throwing some light on the problem is the best place to start.
Candles can be useful, but they also create a fire hazard. It’s best to only use them in a place where you can keep a close eye on them and, preferably, only on fireproof surfaces, like the kitchen counter.
Otherwise, you can opt for battery-powered lanterns and flashlights. Take advantage of whatever you have on hand. For example, if all you have is a bright LED flashlight and you need to light up an entire room, you can use a plastic milk jug as a diffuser.
Try to avoid relying on your phone for light, though, so you can preserve its battery for as long as possible.
Whether it’s hot or cold out, your blinds and curtains can help you control the temperature in your home. In the winter, lots of heat can escape through windows, and this step will minimize the loss.
Drawing the curtains, lowering cellular blinds, or just closing regular blinds, can help create an air “dead space” to insulate your home. Any windows that aren’t receiving direct, strong sunlight should be covered.
If there’s a room in your home that has strong southern exposure, be sure to take advantage of that during a winter power outage—the sun will help heat the room.
During a summer power outage, you would do the opposite, of course. Use your window coverings to block the scorching sun. The greenhouse effect is a wonderful blessing during a freezing winter electrical outage, but it will quickly send the temperature inside your home soaring in the summer heat.
If you have gaps around windows or under doors, you can also use towels or old clothes to plug the gaps and keep the cold out. A roll of painter’s tape is invaluable here.
Normally, you would never insulate a draft around your windows or doors with a simple layer of tape, but doing so now can temporarily keep out the draft. Simply tape over the gap, then put a rolled-up towel against it to actually insulate the space.
If your home is just generally drafty, you might want to purchase some draft stoppers for your doors to keep year-round.
Staying inside as much as possible during a power outage will help maintain your home’s temperature, as well. Because you won’t have an HVAC system to balance out the temperature swings caused by opening a door to the outside, the less you do it, the better.
If the temperature is below freezing, take action to prevent frozen pipes and related damage. Open the cabinet doors beneath your sinks so warm air can warm the pipes, especially if you have cabinets on an exterior wall.
Run a tiny stream of water in all sinks, as the constantly moving water will help prevent the pipes from freezing. Be sure the stream is actually a stream, though, and not just a drip or trickle. There has to be enough water to keep the pipe flowing freely.
Layering your clothing will keep you warm during a winter power outage. Put them on as soon as the power goes out before your house starts getting cold. Keeping your body warm burns serious calories, so trying to do so after you’re already miserably cold will be tough.
Multiple layers of warm, loose, lightweight clothing work better than one thick layer. Make sure you cover the areas sensitive to frostbite, including your toes, fingers, ears, and nose. Use blankets and sleeping bags for extra warmth.
Also, watch for any signs of hypothermia, such as shivering, exhaustion, or confusion. If you or anyone in your home starts to experience any of these, seek medical attention immediately.
An unopened fridge can keep food safely cold for around four hours without power. An unopened, full freezer will keep food frozen for about 48 hours, while a half-full freezer will work for about 24. The more often you open the doors, though, the warmer your fridge or freezer will become, so only do so when necessary.
If the power’s out for longer than your appliances can handle in the winter, use the outside temperature to your advantage. If it’s below freezing, you can put anything that can be frozen outside or in the trunk of your car. Why let your food spoil when there’s a natural freezer right on the other side of your door?
During winter outages, it’s also especially important to make sure you eat regularly and stay hydrated, as both will help you stay warm. That’s why it’s always a good idea to keep some extra bottled water and nonperishable foods on hand.
Water purification systems also might not work during a power outage, so keep an eye out for water safety updates from the local news.
Generators can be a great resource during a power outage, but make sure to use them safely. Never run your generator indoors, keep it away from windows, and make sure its exhaust faces away from your house. Follow these generator safety tips from the American Red Cross to avoid potential hazards.
Remember to be wary of danger from other heat sources, too. Never start an open fire in your home, don’t try to use a gas stove for heat, and don’t run your car indoors (such as in a closed garage). If you decide to cook with a grill or camp stove, do so only outside.
Any indoor combustion-based heater, such as an emergency kerosene heater, should be used strictly by the manufacturer’s instructions (especially in regard to venting requirements) to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
Not only can power outages cause a power surge, they often come with rolling black- and brownouts. We typically think of a power surge as the thing that causes the most damage, and it certainly can, especially to unprotected computers, routers, modems, and televisions.
However, the back and forth of rolling outages can do a lot of damage, too. When the compressors and motors in large appliances are “short cycled” it can lead to damage. Ask any HVAC company—they get plenty of service calls to fix furnaces and, especially, air conditioners after power outages.
So when the power goes out, at minimum, unplug all your electronics, especially if they aren’t plugged into a surge protector. While you’re at it, it’s wise to unplug appliances, as well, because power surges can damage those, too.
To take things a step further, you can go to the electrical service panel in your home and turn off the main breaker to completely isolate your home’s electrical system. Some people only turn off specific circuits, like those that control hardwired appliances like heat pumps.
You can also turn off everything except your bedroom where you can plug in a lamp or radio, so you’ll know when the power is restored.
Modern appliances should have no problems shutting down and restarting. However, older appliances, like old water heaters and furnaces, might have to be manually turned off when the power goes out, and manually restarted afterward.
However, this also allows you to check for potentially dangerous malfunctions in old appliances. Further, be aware of any appliances in your home that need special care if exposed to very cold temperatures.
Electric heat pumps, for example, should never be started from freezing conditions as catastrophic damage to the pump can result. The pump should be left to come up to room temperature before you turn it on again.
When the power comes back on, check that your other important appliances started back up properly, too, such as any sump pumps that feed into your septic system. You can follow this guide to make sure your septic pump system gets back to working properly again.
Whether your power’s out due to a spring or summer flood, or a power outage has led to burst pipes flooding your basement, avoid the water. An electrical shock from the water could be life-threatening, so always stay where it’s dry.
These steps will help you and your household stay safe when the power goes out, even if you weren’t expecting an outage. However, a little preparation also goes a long way. Once the electricity’s back on, try to stock up on essential supplies and make an emergency kit if you don’t yet have one—because you never know when the power might go out again.