Preparing for a Power Outage
In February 2021 around 500,000 properties in Texas lost power. Some of the power outages lasted for more than two weeks during the storm, named Winter Storm Uri. Almost 10 million people experienced some form of blackout during the winter storm, leading to billions of dollars in damages. There have also, unfortunately, been more than 130 confirmed deaths due to the storm.
While severe winter storms can spur electrical grid failures, power outages can happen at any time of year. In the summer, overuse of air conditioning units can cause electrical boards to surge. The most common cause of power outages in the spring and fall is severe wind events like tornadoes, derechos, or hurricanes. In the winter, deep freezes like the one we recently witnessed in Texas are the leading cause of outages. Preparing your home for a power outage can prevent damage to your home and belongings, and even potentially save your life.
Preventing Power Outages
We may not be able to prevent all power outages, but communities can decrease the likelihood of outages by managing tree and vegetation growth along power lines. During windstorms and ice storms, trees are more likely to fall onto power lines if they are close by, causing an outage for customers.
Because electricity is a utility it is regulated by both state and federal governments. The Department of Energy regulates interstate utility relationships, while state and municipal governments regulate retail utility services and power plants. There are more than seven thousand power plants in the U.S.
Another way the U.S. can decrease the likelihood of an outage is to upgrade our power grid. In the U.S. there are three major power grids, the Eastern Grid, Western Grid, and the Texas Grid. The three grids are connected but operate independently.
Over the past hundred years, power plants have used longer and longer high-voltage powerlines to reach homes farther away from the power plant. These long powerlines have also allowed power utilities to link their grids to maintain a balance between supply and demand. This connectivity makes rerouting power possible. Sometimes power may need to run from the north to the south, say during the summer when everyone in the south is using their air conditioning. The same grid can change the flow of power to run from the south to the north during the winter when everyone in the north is heating their homes. Power can also be rerouted from a working source around a malfunctioning plant to still reach customers and power their homes.
Power Outage Preparation Checklist
To be prepared for an extended power outage, think about things you need to live that rely on electricity. Your home appliances, lighting fixtures, and personal electronic devices all need electricity. Light, clean water, cooked food, a radio to receive communication, and (for many) some way to recharge their cell phone.
Flashlights and Lanterns
Power outages make your overhead lighting unusable, so the first tool you need to prepare for a power outage is a source of light. LED flashlights are one of the most common flashlights available today. Incandescent flashlights are typically cheaper than LEDs but also more likely to break. HID, or high-intensity discharge, flashlights are extremely bright, but also usually more expensive. Pressurized Gas flashlights are the preferred option for most emergency kits.
In addition to a standard flashlight, it is also good to have extra batteries for the flashlight in case it goes out. A new alternative some may find more comforting is the shake flashlight that is powered by shaking a tube with magnets inside. These flashlights are dim but do not run on batteries.
Almost all standard household appliances run on electricity, meaning your fridge will just be a big cooler during a power outage. Keeping the refrigerator doors closed is key to minimize the chance of spoiling your food, but your water filtration system is likely to stop working as well. Ready.gov recommends having a gallon of drinking water for each person in your home. The February 2021 power crisis in Texas lasted for more than two weeks, meaning a family of four would have needed more than sixty gallons of water. Storing this much emergency water is impractical for most homeowners. As an alternative to storing large amounts of drinking water, consider investing in a non-electric water filtration system if you have access to a source of running water.
Most non-perishable foods are highly processed and make for a poor diet if eaten continuously. Some non-perishables are both tasty and healthy. Canned foods are the most common for pantries. Dried goods are also a common pantry staple that can help you stay prepared for a loss of power.
- Canned Vegetables: root vegetables, potatoes, beans, corn, peas, and greens
- Canned Fish and Poultry: tuna, salmon, chicken, sardines, and oysters
- Canned Fruit (though beware of added sugar in canned fruit)
- Dried Grains, Pasta, and Rice
- Dried Meats and Jerky
- Dried Beans and Lentils
- Dried Herbs and Spices
- Nuts and Seeds
- Oil and Vinegar
Cooking food without electricity is easy if you have a few cans of cooking fuel. These fuel cans burn for up to two hours and are safe to use indoors. Younger people may forget, but there was a time when cooking over a fire was the only option!
Having a crank radio is key to creating the ultimate survival kit. During an extended power outage, communication is a commodity. National agencies like FEMA and NOAA broadcast information during disasters via radio frequencies. Even if you do not have access to electricity, a crank radio will allow you to tune in to public alerts and know what is going on around you.
Keeping your cell phone charged might be your number one priority if you are a millennial. If you want to recharge your cell phone or other devices during a power outage it's good to have a power bank. When choosing the right power bank for your emergency kit think about the size, durability, and charging ability.
How to Choose a Generator
Generators convert chemical or mechanical energy into electrical energy to power a home when its lost connection to the grid. There are a wide variety of generators available, ranging in power and price. The most powerful generators produce enough energy to power everything in your home and more, while the least powerful ones can typically produce enough energy to power your refrigerator and charge a few devices. Generators can cost anywhere between $400 - $6,000, so doing some research to ensure you are not buying more than you need can save you a lot of money.
What to Do During a Power Outage
- Check Your Breaker – first see if your circuit breaker may have been tripped for a potential quick fix.
- Tune in to Alerts – check your local news source to see if a weather event or something else is causing power outages in your area. During extreme cold communities will often set up warming centers.
- Let People Know You Are Okay – reach out to friends and family members to let them know you are not in trouble, and check to make sure they are not in trouble either.
- Disconnect Your Electronics – disconnecting your electronics and appliances can prevent them from damage in case there is a power surge.
- Keep the Freezer Closed – once power stops running to your home your refrigerator and freezer will stop cooling. To prolong any of your food spoiling, open the doors as little as possible.
- Stay Away from Power Lines – fallen power lines may be live and if you touch one it could kill you. Stay at least 30 feet away from power lines and call 911 to alert authorities of the potential threat.
- Use Emergency Equipment Safely – if using a generator make sure it is outdoors (unless it is solar/battery operated and approved for indoor usage). Do not use a gas range, charcoal fire, or camp stove to heat your home (this could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning).
- Decide When to Leave – in extreme circumstances you may need to evacuate during a power outage. If you have a special medical condition, or if you cannot keep your home warm enough, it may be time to leave.