Power Outage Safety and Preparation: What to Know Before the Electricity Shuts Off
A power outage is a fairly common event, and it can happen to anyone at any time. This type of outage describes an interruption of power, however temporary, that causes a loss of electricity to a building. Although power outages can be over in an instant or last several days, the average is a little less than two hours. This depends on the area in which people live, as well as the time of year and the current weather.
Preparing for a power outage may seem like an impossible task, but the work often pays off with lower stress and less damage to the home. People can ensure their own safety, as well as that of their children and pets, by paying attention to the situation as it unfolds. They can also make the experience less troublesome by taking several steps to prepare for the possibility. Power outages are common enough that people may not take them very seriously. However, the type of power outage, as well as its cause, can put humans and pets at risk. These tips help people know what is going on, what they need to do, and a few things they can do in advance.
Table of Contents
- What Causes a Power Outage?
- Types of Power Outages
- How to Prepare for a Power Outage
- During a Power Outage
- After a Power Outage
- General Energy Conservation Tips
- Staying Safe
What Causes a Power Outage?
In many cases, people can learn to anticipate the possibility of a power outage based on the most likely causes. Power does not shut down arbitrarily, although it may be difficult to find the source. Common causes include:
- Falling trees
- Planned outages
If people understand how this event can affect their access to power, they can plan for it so that it has less of an effect on their lives.
Weather-Related Power Outages
The idea that weather can cut power may be fairly easy to understand. The typical weather events that may trigger an unexpected loss of power are:
- Excessive wind
- Snow or ice
- Flooding caused by runoff or excessive rain
Although most of these can be somewhat predictable, wind may be the most difficult to anticipate. Even slight winds can cause power lines to sway or touch other objects, which would trigger a temporary short in the circuit. People expecting extreme winds can plan in advance, but it does not necessarily require a tornado or hurricane to cause this problem.
Outages caused by precipitation, like snow, ice, or rain, may be temporary or could possibly last up to several days. It is important to note that flooding can cut power to underground lines as well as above-ground ones. People should consider the effect of long-lasting storms with heavy precipitation throughout the year. This may help them identify a plan of action that provides extra protection during those seasons. Likewise, lightning storms have a certain degree of predictability. Lighting strikes the closest source, which means that taller objects are at greater risk. A falling tree can take down a power line, triggering an outage.
Other Causes of Power Outages
Other possible causes of a power outage depend on the location of the power source. For example, a vehicle accident that knocks out a utility pole may temporarily shut down power to homes and businesses that rely on power going through that particular line. When only a small portion of a neighborhood has a power outage, these causes are more likely to be the trigger. Small animals may also be the culprit, since they are more likely to run up and down a utility pole and accidentally touch a transformer.
For power lines that are above ground, falling trees may be one of the biggest issues. Many things can cause a tree to fall down, including:
- Weakness of the tree's structure
- Car accidents
- Heavy snowfall or wind
Even a tree-trimming or landscaping service making a mistake could cause a limb to fall on a power line.
Ultimately, people should pay attention to their surroundings, especially the weather forecast. Power outages range from a few minutes of inconvenience to days of struggle. They can even be life-threatening if they last a long time or come when weather is extremely hot or cold. Having a plan for power outages that is tailored to the season and the family's needs is the best way to ensure a better outcome.
Types of Power Outages
Along with different causes, there are several different types of power outages that people should consider:
- Permanent Fault
A blackout indicates a complete loss of power. By comparison, a brownout indicates a decrease in the amount of available power. Its name describes the way the access to lighting changes, instead of simply having the lights go out. Brownouts may indicate the possibility of a future black out. They may also be very short in duration, lasting as little as a few seconds. A permanent fault indicates an actual problem with the line, such as a downed power line. The power restores once the problem is solved.
Rolling blackouts are a common approach taken by cities to control high electricity needs at specific times of the year. For example, in an area with very hot summers, utility companies may plan to have rolling blackouts during peak-use times of the day. This creates a short-term hassle for people without power during a specific time. It is designed to avoid overwhelming the grid, which could trigger a longer outage. Although rolling blackouts are more common in less-developed areas, they can be a prominent feature of cities with a large population as well.
How to Prepare for a Power Outage
In order for a power outage to have the least effect on people, they need to know what is likely to happen during a power outage and how they should prepare. Some outages are very brief and may not require activation of a long-term plan to cope. Others could last for days and require significant changes to family life during the outage. These aspects help people determine precisely how an outage is likely to affect them personally so they can take steps to decrease the long-term effects and possible damage.
Make a Disaster Kit and Plan
As a general rule, government organizations recommend that families have a disaster kit designed to provide for their basic needs for three days. What needs to go in the kit depends greatly on the number of people in the household, what and how much they need to consume, and other needs they may have. Experts strongly suggest gathering supplies that will accommodate pets, since food and shelter may be even more difficult to achieve for them. Although a disaster kit is designed to provide for people during a power outage while they remain in their homes, people may also want to plan for the possibility that they need to evacuate.
People should put the following items in a safe place:
- One gallon of water per person per day
- A three-day supply of non-perishable food, preferably items that need little or no preparation or cleanup
- Radio that runs on batteries
- Prescription medications in current bottles
- First aid kit
- Lighting, including flashlights or LED candles
- Charging sources for phones and other devices
- Personal hygiene supplies like toilet paper, soap, or menstrual products
For their pets, they should include:
- Pet food and water
- Familiar beds
- Small, lightweight toys
- Portable housing for pets if they need to be moved to another location
Although people may want to keep kits like this on hand for any disaster, some of these items will need regular rotation. For example, canned goods can last for years but not necessarily decades. Medications will require a regular update.
Preparing for a possible evacuation may be a necessity, and not just for power outages. The cause of the outage, like a flood, might require people to move to safer ground. Families should create an evacuation plan they can use when all of them are at home as well as evacuating when they are at work, school, or another location. The plan must identify:
- Common places to go for safety
- A couple of ways to get there, in case one is blocked
- Ways to communicate with each other in the event people are separated
People may want to designate a family member who does not live in the area to receive and distribute communications. This can help ensure that everyone can find each other and learn if the other family members are in a safe place.
Consider Buying a Generator
When people have to consider the possibility of a power outage that lasts for several hours or longer, they may want to think about alternatives that can help them keep crucial systems running. Battery-operated devices are helpful and generally quite affordable. However, they are limited in scope and require a regular supply of batteries. Instead, it may be worth considering a generator to provide supplemental power during the outage.
Generators typically run on fuel that is easily accessible such as gasoline or propane. The fuel runs a system that produces electricity for the generator, not unlike a car's engine. Power provided depends on the size of the generator. Some products can manage high-energy systems like an air conditioner, while others may just be enough to power a few basic outlets. The generator can be connected directly to the homes electrical system to provide a continuous current of power. There are also generators available for portable use. People should keep in mind that any system using fuel and generating exhaust must be properly ventilated outside.
Know When to Toss Food in the Fridge
Once a power outage passes the first couple of hours, people should consider what they will need to do with perishable food and other items in the home. The way that food goes bad depends on:
- The food item
- How it is stored
- What kind of refrigeration devices people have
For example, fresh milk will spoil much faster at room temperature than cheese that has been aged for 1-2 years. People should keep in mind that the temperature of the refrigeration device will stay colder if they can minimize the number of times that they open it.
As a general rule, deep freezes will keep food cold longest. The items at the bottom of a chest freezer will be the last to defrost in most cases. An upright freezer may be able to keep items at a maximum acceptable temperature for a day or two. A standard refrigerator can keep most foods cold for about four hours. After this time passes, people may need to consider throwing out the food. Keeping the storage compartments as full as possible will slow down the defrosting process. If people suspect a power outage coming in several hours or days, they may want to fill containers with water and freeze or refrigerate them in advance to help keep the interior colder.
Have Light Sources Ready
Although power outages can happen at any time of the day or night, having access to adequate lighting is a necessity every time. Candles have been a popular option for decades, but people should keep in mind that products that use wax and a flame may not be the most appropriate choice. Instead, people should invest in flashlights, battery-operated button lights, and lanterns they can use. Lighting systems that use LED bulbs consume significantly less energy, which allows them to last longer on the battery. At least one light source should be easy to find at any time—even in the dark.
Minimize Extreme Weather Concerns
In extreme weather circumstances, people may need to take extra care during a power outage to ensure they do not put themselves or the other members of the household at risk. The steps they should take depend on the weather circumstances. For example, a power outage during extremely high heat may require people to open doors and windows, or use other means to keep the home from becoming hotter than the air outside.
By comparison, a power outage of more than a few hours during a very cold winter may call for people to stay inside and minimize opening any doors. This helps to keep some of the ambient heat in the home inside. They may also need to consider alternate heating sources, although fuel-based options may not be safe or realistic to use during a power outage.
People should also keep in mind that other parts of the system can be affected by cold weather. Running faucets on a slow drip can keep the water in the plumbing from freezing and bursting the pipes. Ultimately, the best thing that people can do during a power outage with extreme temperatures is to know when they should evacuate to a place that has power and access to heating and cooling. Staying in a home that is at or below freezing temperatures for days can be just as deadly as remaining in a home with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Find Ways to Stay Occupied
In a world where people rely heavily on electronic devices for work, school, and entertainment, finding other ways to pass the time is important. Although people can certainly use smartphones so long as service is available, they may want to have a backup of energy-free options. These might include:
- Board games
- Playing cards
To help children avoid boredom, parents may want to keep a small number of toys and books out of their children's regular rotation ready for such a situation. This makes it easier to ensure that the children are sufficiently engaged by the items and will spend more time interacting with them.
Know How to Report a Power Outage
Utility companies have a variety of things they can offer people dealing with a power outage. This is something that people will want to research in advance. It can also make them more aware of things like planned outages relating to upgrades to equipment. It is easy to assume that someone will report a significant power outage to the utility company so that they can work on fixing it. This is not always the case, however. People should plan to call the utility to report the outage as soon as possible. They can also look online to see if the company offers updates on their progress toward solving it.
Minimize Potential Damage
A power outage, even one that lasts only for a few minutes, can cause damage to equipment as well as putting people at risk. It is important to consider the possible loss of equipment or data as a factor in people's preparation plans. Just as people would put their sensitive documents into a firesafe or waterproof container in case of a house fire or flood, they should be careful about what can happen to their computers or data backups from a power outage.
Systems that run on electricity are generally designed to minimize how much power goes through the circuit. This makes sense because if the systems could not control that power, then it would be very easy to send too much power to a piece of equipment and destroy it. However, around a power outage, there may be cause to suspect that the system could fail.
People may be able to minimize damage resulting from this by using tools like surge protectors or GFCI outlets. Surge protectors act as a kind of last-ditch effort to minimize the energy current. If there is a power surge due to something like a lightning strike, then the surge protector may be able to protect equipment from becoming the target of that surge. Ground fault circuit interrupters are designed to shut down the outlet as soon as the current exceeds a specific amount. This can reduce the likelihood that a surge could damage the equipment or injure the people standing nearby.
An uninterruptible power supply is one way that people can give themselves time to shut down devices without an immediate loss of power. This acts as a temporary battery for the machine and is usually built in. It is not like using a generator to charge a laptop battery, however. The UPS will run out relatively quickly, and people may end up with the same problem if they do not act to shut down the computer early enough.
People can also minimize the likelihood of damage by keeping regular backups in more than one place with one of those options maintained outside of the home. These days, cloud storage is relatively easy and cheap to access. Many people choose to keep most or all their backups through a company that provides storage space. They must periodically check on the backups to confirm they are working properly and not corrupted. Saving one bad file in a backup can make it difficult or impossible to retrieve any of the data.
Keep Phones and Electronics Charged
Charging phones and electronics that run on batteries regularly is a good way to keep communication working throughout the power outage. This means that people may not want to wait until they go to bed to charge their devices. Keeping phones or other communication tools at a battery level that will provide at least a couple of hours of use at all times can better ensure that people will have it until they get power back or can move to a place with power sources available. This also applies to backup battery options like a USB battery bank.
During a Power Outage
In some cases, a power outage is simply a short period of time in which people may need to find other forms of entertainment. In other cases, people need to take great care to avoid hurting themselves or others during the outage. Some time-honored approaches that feel natural, like lighting a bunch of candles or running a hot bath, may not necessarily be the safest or the most practical ideas. People should take steps to ensure that they have the least amount of risk until the power is back on.
Don't Light Candles
The idea of lighting a bunch of large candles and playing board games during a power outage holds fond memories for many adults. However, candles are a significant fire risk. Some of the ingredients in highly scented candles may not be safe for people to inhale in a home where the ventilation is currently shut down. Instead, people should plan to use LED candles or flashlights. If regular candles are the only option, they must be under constant adult supervision so that kids or pets do not knock them over.
Don't Leave Things Plugged In
Although GFCI outlets and surge protectors are designed to control the current that goes through an outlet, this does not mean that equipment and appliances are safe to remain plugged in during a power outage. A surge can happen at any time, and an untested surge protector may not be able to prevent damage. Instead, people should plan to unplug their electronic devices in advance of the power outage or as soon as they become aware of it. This will help to ensure the equipment remains ready for use. Leaving a lamp or other light plugged in and turned on makes it easier to know when the outage is done.
Don't Open the Fridge or Freezer (Unless Necessary)
While it may be tempting to delve into the freezer and eat all the ice cream before it melts, it is much better for people to leave the fridge and the freezer closed as long as possible. Refrigerators and upright freezers devote a large amount of surface area to the door, which means that every time someone opens the door, a significant amount of warmer air from the room can enter. People should keep at least a small amount of non-perishable goods and water they can use for eating, drinking, and cleaning until the power comes back on.
Don't Grill Indoors or Use a Generator in Your Garage
People may not be aware that their homes have a significant number of ventilation systems designed to protect them. Most of these systems require electric power, which means they do not work during a power outage, so people need to be careful about the alternatives they might use to provide power or heat while they wait for the power to return. For example, anything that runs on fuel can generate exhaust. This exhaust is high in carbon monoxide, which can be deadly to humans and pets. It is also colorless and odorless, so people may not realize that they have a problem until they are in very serious trouble.
To reduce the likelihood that this could become a problem, people should plan to avoid using any heat or power sources that run on fuel inside the home or the garage, including:
- Outdoor barbecue grills
- Fuel-based space heaters and other equipment
People using a generator to run something like a gas furnace should also be careful. Even though both of these systems may have built-in ventilation outside, it might not be as effective. Installing carbon monoxide detectors around the home can help alert people when there is a problem. Providing shelter for the generator while it is outside may protect it from excess wind or precipitation.
Don't Use Up All Water at Once
Hot water heaters that use a tank need electricity to start the burner or heat the water. Without power, the water in the tank will eventually become cold. However, people should be wary of how much water they use during an outage. If they are not sure of the cause, they may not know if the water supply is also at risk. A power outage caused by flooding could also mean the water supply is contaminated and unsafe for use. It is better for people to rely on bottled water for drinking and sanitation until they have more information.
Staying Comfortable With the AC or Heater Out
Even if the outside temperature isn't at a critical level, people may still struggle to stay adequately cool or warm without access to an air conditioner or heater. In hotter temperatures, they can avoid feeling miserable or getting sick by:
- Keeping doors and windows closed while it is hot outside
- Using doors and windows to draw in cooler temperatures at night
- Purchasing a battery-operated fan
- Wetting a hand towel and leaving it to dry in the center of a room
- Spending time in the basement or main floor, avoiding the highest level of the home
These suggestions may not prevent someone from getting heat sickness in high heat, but they can minimize most people's discomfort for a few hours.
In cold weather conditions, households might consider heating things up by:
- Using the fireplace or a wood burning stove (safely).
- Wearing layers of warm clothing and using blankets.
- Sealing their home and closing doors.
- Using hand warmers.
- Huddling together in the same room.
Stay Away from Pooling Water
Since storms with heavy precipitation are such a common cause of power outages, people should be aware of the dangers related to pooling water. An outage does not necessarily mean that there is no electricity in the area, just that there is some kind of fault in the circuit. Downed power lines nearby with large puddles of water from a rainstorm may create a very dangerous situation if people are in the water. Similarly, pools of water that are left standing for days may breed contaminants that could make people sick if they submerge in it or drink it.
After a Power Outage
After a power outage, people should take stock of their current situation and make plans to get back to normal. Before doing anything else, adults should research online and investigate the area. They must confirm that it is safe before allowing children or pets outside or unattended. Just because the power is back at home does not mean that everywhere is safe to go. During their inspection, people should take note of any damage inside or outside the property. They should keep close records, including pictures, if possible. This will make it easier to file a claim with insurance, if necessary.
Otherwise, people can prepare to get back to their typical daily activities. Going through the refrigerator and freezer and throwing out any food that is no longer safe for consumption should be one of the first steps. If people shut off the water supply out of concern for flooding, then they may be able to turn it back on if the city has not placed any restrictions. They should inventory any items that they used from an emergency kit, and plan to restock anything that was used up. This is also a good time to think about items that were not included but turned out to be necessary or useful.
General Energy Conservation Tips
Many broad-scale power outages result because the energy demands for the area exceed the supply and electricity in reserve. People may be able to minimize the likelihood of blackouts or rolling blackouts by changing the way they consume energy in the home. Even a handful of minor changes could cut someone's energy consumption by 10 percent or more. This is true for businesses as well as residences. If everyone in an area took similar steps, they could significantly cut the energy load without necessarily compromising on their most important needs.
When people start to think about energy conservation, they need to consider what they use as well as when they use it. There are many devices throughout the home or office that might consume more power than expected, like a box for cable or satellite television or a laser printer. Equipment can use energy even if it is turned off. Disconnecting these devices from power when they are not in use can decrease the amount of energy used by the household as a whole. If people are considerate, they may be able to unplug more than 10 devices.
The time of day that people use energy is also extremely important. For example, during the hottest part of the summer, energy needs will be highest during the hottest part of the day. This means that people are more likely to deal with a blackout in the afternoon, because more people are running resource-intensive air conditioners at that time. Adjusting thermostat settings on an air conditioner to a minimum 78 degrees Fahrenheit can cut down on the amount of energy that people need to run it. This also helps to avoid taxing the grid. Business owners could consider relaxing dress requirements so that their employees can wear clothing that is comfortable in higher temperatures.
People can also choose to run appliances during off-peak hours of the day or night. Many utility companies offer a discount to account holders who operate appliances like the oven, dishwasher, or clothes dryer at night. This helps to spread out the energy load that the city needs at any given point in time, helping them to provide power more consistently to everyone. If people do choose to run equipment in off-hours, they may not notice a decrease in their energy consumption. However, the benefit of steady power is usually enough of a reward to keep doing it.
The right choices for people depend on what they need from electricity. As a general rule, they may get extra benefits if they:
- Find ways to stay cool other than the air conditioner
- Rely on building ventilation instead of opening doors and windows
- Use curtains to allow light in or keep heat out
- Switch to LED bulbs instead of incandescent
Energy conservation is not an all-or-nothing proposition. If people plan to do a handful of things as they can, they are likely to see improvements in their energy bills as well as reducing the chances of power outages.
Few people enjoy having to deal with a power outage. The longer it lasts, the more likely it is that members of a household will have to handle limited access to technology, throw out food, or consider evacuation to a building that has steady power. In most cases, people may not need to take steps to protect themselves. They only need to wait and avoid causing damage while they get updates and prepare for the power to come back on.
Since many power outages do not come with an early warning, preparation in advance is key to helping families avoid hassle or serious complications during the outage. This includes creating a plan with a kit of supplies to provide basic needs for residents and pets, as well as an evacuation plan in case of emergency. It also involves making basic upgrades to the home and buying equipment that will allow people to remain safely at home for the duration. Safe practices during the outage also make sure that everyone gets to the end with a lower risk of sickness or injury. Knowing what to do helps people to feel less worried when a power outage happens to them.