Although not an actual storm, part of preparing for a storm includes preparing for a potential power outage. Of course, the power can go out without being directly related to a storm as well, so it’s always good to be prepared. An outage during the day isn’t usually too big of a deal, but an outage at night can be annoying. And an outage lasting more than a couple hours can start to get costly.
Almost all dangers related to power outages are usually secondary to the outage. There are a number of things you can do to try to keep safe during a power outage, and common sense is a big factor as well.
- When the power goes out, this could be due to downed power lines. If you see a power line down, always assume it is live and call the non-emergency police or your local power company.
- If the outage is at night, don’t use candles as these can start fires. Use flashlights or camping lanterns.
- When using a generator, know how to properly use it to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Don’t eat food that has been in the refrigerator for more than 4 hours without power, or the freezer more than 24 hours for a half-full or 48 hours for a completely full freezer.
- Only drive if completely necessary as traffic lights will be out causing congested roads and potential accidents.
Power outages also cost the United States tens of billions of dollars every year. The biggest cost to the government comes in repairing whatever infrastructure was damaged causing the outage, and any other government-controlled devices that are damaged because of the outage. The cost to the consumer can include many factors, such as replacing spoiled food, restocking emergency kits, buying a portable generator, lost wages from not being able to work, property damage (fixing or replacing sump pumps, damaged air conditioners, damaged appliances, etc.), and possibly having to stay in a hotel if staying home isn’t an option.
There are a number of reasons the power can go out, and it depends on your area. The leading cause is extreme weather damaging power transformers, power plants, and downing power lines. In addition to storms, there are times that the power grid can get overloaded and fail. This will often happen in either the coldest or hottest months, as people are running their heater or air conditioning at peak times of the day. I’ve known of car accidents hitting a power pole that brings the pole down with a transformer on it, meaning that area is out. Another large cause of outages is old and outdated equipment. In 2013 it was estimated that 70% of the power grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are over 25 years old, while the average power plant exceeds 30 years old.1
About 80% of power outages are caused by weather. 59% of weather-related outages analyzed were caused by storms and severe weather; nearly 19% by cold weather and ice storms; 18% by hurricanes and tropical storms; 3% tornadoes, and 2% by a combination of extreme heat events and wildfires.2
Be Weather Alert
There aren’t any specific watches or warnings for power outages, but there are watches and warnings for the weather events that are likely to cause an outage. If you are under a severe thunderstorm warning, that’s a potential for power to be interrupted. More extreme weather, such as a winter storm, hurricane, or tornado are much more likely to cause the power to go out. If you have advanced warning that severe weather is headed your way, you can start to prepare for the possibility of a power outage.
Before severe weather hits:
- Make sure you have your In-Home Emergency Kit stocked and ready
- Charge any electronics you may need during the storm, such as your cell phone
- Think about other options for charging if the power is out for a long time
- If you have medical devices dependent on electricity, have a backup option ready
- Know how to manually open your garage door as that relies on electricity
- Freeze water in jugs or buy ice to put in the refrigerator and freezer to keep it cold longer
- Fill your vehicle’s gas tank as most of the pumps rely on electricity
- Purchase a portable generator to power the essentials and have extra fuel for it
During A Power Outage
When the power goes out, make sure it isn’t just a tripped breaker. If other rooms in the house have power, that’s a likely scenario. Check your breaker box and if one of them is not on, turn it all the way off before turning it back on. Make sure to grab the breaker, then always turn your head away from the box, just in case something goes wrong, you aren’t facing the box.
Next, make sure it isn’t just your house. If it’s night, it’s really easy to look outside for lights on at other homes and street lights to be on. If it’s only your house, check your breaker box, and if everything on that looks fine, call your electric company to let them know so they can send someone out.
When the power goes out in your entire area, there are a few things you can do to try to protect yourselves and your homes from harm. As I stated earlier, a lot of it relies on common sense, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it.
- Call the electric company to report the outage.
- Candles have been known to start fires. Use only battery-operated lights such as flashlights and camping lanterns.
- Do not open your refrigerator or freezer. If unopened, the refrigerator will be good for 4 hours and the freezer for 24 hours if half-full and 48 if full.
- If it is hot outside, take precautions to keep cool: open windows for a breeze, wear lightweight and loose-fitting clothing, stay hydrated.
- If it is cold outside, take precautions to keep warm: open blinds to let the sun in during the day, stay close together, gather blankets, wear layers.
- Turn off and unplug as many electronics and appliances as possible to prevent any power surges from damaging sensitive parts.
- When using a generator, know how to use it properly to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Stay home. Traffic lights will also be out causing congested roads and possible accidents.
- After about 4 hours, food in the refrigerator will start to go bad. Use these perishable foods first.
- Leave one light or radio plugged in so you know when the power comes back on.
After A Power Outage
Once power is restored, there are still a few things you can do to help prevent any further damage to your home and protect yourself and your family.
- Go through the food in your refrigerator and freezer. Food will stay good in the refrigerator for 4 hours if the door isn’t opened. Past that, throw out anything perishable such as dairy and eggs. Food in the freezer will stay good for 24 hours if it’s half full and the door isn’t opened, and 48 hours for a full freezer. When in doubt, throw it out. It isn’t worth getting food poisoning.
- Restock your emergency kit with any resources that were depleted, such as batteries for your flashlights.
- If you are out and about, keep an eye out for down power lines and always assume that they are live.
- Once the power comes back on, wait a few minutes before plugging in your electronics and appliances.
- If the power is still surging slightly, it can damage sensitive electronics.
- If everyone plugs everything back in as soon as power is restored, it can overload the grid again.
- You may need to set the thermostat on your air or heat to let it slowly get back to the temperature you want. For example, we usually keep our house at 77 but if the power is out too long and it goes up to 84, I don’t want to have the a/c set to 77 and it run constantly. That isn’t good for the air conditioner and is a strain on the power grid. It’s better to slowly lower (or raise) the temperature as needed.
The longest I ever went without power was after Hurricane Charley hit our area. We were out of school for 6 days from the storm (it hit on a Friday so that day and the entire next week), and our house was without power for 4 days. Luckily, since we had a camper, my parents also had bought a portable generator to take when we were camping in case we needed it. My dad set that up when we got home after the storm, and ran it to a couple lights and the refrigerator. We turned it off at night to bring it inside because they were afraid it would be stolen. The day after the storm, my dad got the camper out of the storage and we set it up in the driveway. We chained the generator to the camper so it couldn’t be stolen, and it powered everything in the camper, including the air conditioning, and we ran a line in to the refrigerator in the house.
Where we are now in Texas, we seem to have random power outages. Sometimes they last only a few minutes, sometimes it’s a few hours. One was long enough that my neighbor had gotten a bag of ice to put in her refrigerator, so got me one as well to try to keep our food from spoiling. The ones here seem to be from the system being overloaded, although we do get some storms that knock the power out as well.