All sorts of things can trigger power outages. Random broken lines are usually repaired quickly, but when a big storm hits, you might be without power for several days. It’s a good idea to make like a Scout and Be Prepared.
• Have a good stash of batteries in the sizes you need for flashlights, radios, and other electronics. For convenience and thrift, order by the dozen (or more) on the Internet.
• Have a cell-phone charger that operates from your car battery.
• If you have a landline, keep one phone that connects directly to your wall plug. (Cordless phones require electricity. Nearby cell towers may also be without power.)
• Invest in at least one portable “juice-pack” (many have a built-in flashlight) and keep it fully charged to recharge electronic devices.
• In bad weather, keep portable electronic devices from iPads to cell phones fully charged.
• If your power goes out, check to see if it’s out in your neighborhood, too. Have the power company’s phone number handy. You can often get an estimate of when your address’ power will be restored and knowing whether it will be 3 hours or 3 days will affect your planning.
• Secure refrigerator and freezer door handles so you don’t absentmindedly open them. If you keep them shut, food should stay safely cool for up to 48 hours.
• Know where you will go if you will be without heat for several days.
• To prevent damage from a power surge (or very low power) while lines are being repaired and restored, unplug all your appliances—refrigerators, computers, televisions—everything except one lamp or radio that can signal that you have your power back.
• If you are a camper you probably already have a propane camping lantern, but be sure it’s available, not at the back of the garage with your tent.
• Glowsticks are great! Just snap them for dim, but useable lighting that lasts up to 12 hours in hallways or bathrooms. Similar low-level lighting can be provided by a product called UVPaqlite, a vacuum-sealed reusable light source that recharges with light from any source.
• Have flashlights handy, with plenty of batteries.
• Candles can work, but can present a fire hazard if you have young children or active pets.
• Solar lights in your yard? Bring them in at night and recharge outside during the day.
• You can even make your own oil lamps from cooking oil, a piece of string, and an empty canning jar or tuna can. Print out directions from the Internet and have them ready as a practical, entertaining project with children.
• If you have a woodstove safely connected to a chimney, you can use the top for heating food. You can also use a camping stove, a gas- or charcoal-powered grille, or a hibachi for cooking, but only outdoors. There is immediate danger from carbon monoxide poisoning if used indoors.
Without electricity, a fireplace, or a woodstove, you’re in a tough spot. Even gas or oil furnaces require electricity to power the circulating fan. It may be you’ll choose to have a generator.
Power companies have a priority list for restoring power. If a single repair will light up a nursing home, 250 apartments, and 100 houses, it will be performed ahead of a fix that brings a couple homes back online. This means a generator may be a good option, especially in rural or remote areas or if a family member has an electrically-powered medical device.
It’s important to completely understand the operation of a portable generator and use it safely. The main hazards with a generator are carbon monoxide poisoning, fire, and electric shock or electrocution. Never operate inside a garage, carport, basement, or crawlspace, even with ventilation, because carbon monoxide, which can’t be seen or smelled, can quickly lead to incapacitation.
Keep the generator dry and operate it on a dry surface under an open canopy-like structure, such as under a tarp held up on poles. Do not touch the generator with wet hands.
Don’t connect the generator to your home’s wiring since this can create a safety hazard for utility workers mending the lines. Instead, use extension cords to connect appliances directly to the generator.
Some people opt for automatic back-up generators. Local contractors and businesses can install these to your specifications. Essential circuits such as those supporting medical devices, well pumps, heating, refrigerators and freezers are connected, while few people worry about the laundry room or the dishwasher.
These automatic back-up generators switch on when they detect a problem with power from the utility company. Depending on the system, generator-supplied electricity is available with only a few seconds’ interruption of service. When the utility company’s service resumes at a safe and constant level, the system automatically switches back to the power line. Generators are often installed near AC units and near the service panel for the home. Fuel sources are generally natural gas, propane or diesel.
Glenn Pribus and his wife live in Albemarle County near Charlottesville. Their power was once out for three days, but they kept the fridge closed and heated coffee, tea, and canned soup on their freestanding woodstove.