Residents of Columbus, Ohio have just endured their third extended electrical outage in the past eight years, with some going Amish for more than a week during one of the hottest summers in two decades. This unfortunate happenstance brings us to ask, are you prepared for a blackout? Here's a list of steps you can take and items you should have to ensure you're prepared for a time without electricity.
An Electrical GeneratorThe first thing that most folks think about when they hear the word "blackout" is probably "power generator." Generators can be powered by gasoline, propane, or natural gas and can, at minimum, keep the refrigerator and freezer running. Depending on the size, larger generators can also supply enough juice to run a whole household, including the furnace, stove, hot water heater, sump pumps, and even an air conditioner. You'll want at least 2,000 watts of power to run some lights, a gas furnace and a fridge, and much more power if you want to use electricity for cooking and heating or cooling your home. This Consumer Reports calculator can help you determine how much generator power you will need during a blackout.
For maximum efficiency and convenience, you should have an electrician add a power transfer switch to your home electrical system. By plugging your generator into your home system you'll avoid running extension cords all over the house.
When shopping for your backup generator, keep in mind the machine's efficiency and its noise factor. The Gentron Pro2-3500P Propane Generator ($489 with free shipping, a low by $10) puts out a steady 2,800 watts of electricity and runs off of propane. It will operate for 10 hours at 1/2 load on 20 lb. of propane at a relatively quiet 68 decibels. It is EPA- and California CARB-approved. Be warned, however, that this model weighs a whopping 106 lbs. Be sure to read up on other helpful tips for selecting the right generator.
Any time you're running a generator, you should be aware of the carbon monoxide exhaust the generator puts out. Vent it properly and don't let it run in the garage. And if you don't already have a carbon monoxide detector, pick one up. The BRK Electronics CO250B Battery-Operated Carbon Monoxide Alarm ($17.99 with free shipping, a low by $1) includes a 9-volt battery and emits an alarm of 85 decibels when it detects dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
Food PreparednessAfter "power generator," during a blackout most folks think of how long their frozen foods will remain frozen. Experts say that a freezer half-full of food will remain frozen for 24 hours if not opened, 48 hours if full of food. By avoiding opening your fridge, you'll help maintain a temperature of at least 40 degrees, which the CDC says is required for perishables. If the chamber warms to above 40 degrees, you'll need to throw away perishables like meat, dairy products, mayonnaise and the like. Butter, catsup, hard cheeses, and other less perishable foods are OK for at least a couple of days.
In the event of a power outage, you'll want to have stocked up on coolers and know of places nearby that sell ice. Make sure your pantry is full of canned foods and ready-to-eat non-perishables. It's also pretty crucial that you have a handcrank can opener!
Your pets need food, too. So it's smart to keep at least a week's worth of pet food on hand at all times.
In the event of an extended blackout, you're going to need to cook up some of the foodstuffs that might go bad. If you don't have an operational gas stove, consider firing up your propane grill. Or you could adopt a camping-in-the-backyard motif and use a butane or propane stove like the Buffalo Tools Sportsman Camping Single Gas Stove ($19.99 with $2.95 s&h, a low by $7) that provides around 13,000 BTUs of heat. This is enough to boil water, make coffee, and cook meals. Just be sure to keep matches on hand to light it up.
Water SuppliesThose on city water will probably receive uninterrupted service during a power outage, but if you get your water from a well, you may face some problems. You'll want to keep about a gallon of drinking water per person per day on hand. And it's important to rotate this supply. If you receive a severe weather warning, it'd advisable to even fill your tub up water to provide what you'll need to flush your commode.
Let There Be LightWhile we are in the heat of summer and light isn't much a consideration, winter blackouts can throw people into a frenzy. Candles or oil lamps generate light, but have the potential to be a fire hazard. But a new generation of LED lamps and flashlights are proving to be quite useful in the darkest hours. The Rayovac SE3DLN Sportsman Xtreme LED Lantern ($25 with free shipping, a low by $6) has 4-watt LEDs and puts out 300 lumens. It can operate for up to 150 hours via 3 D-cell batteries.
Staying Warm and Cooling DownWinter blackouts are not only difficult to deal with because of the shortened hours of daylight, but the cold weather also poses a challenge to keeping warm. Make sure you have a supply of blankets and sleeping bags to bundle into. If you have a wood-burning fireplace or stove, keep a stockpile of wood on hand to get you through a week or more.
Be warned, though. If the temperature in your house sinks and remains below freezing you should drain your water system to avoid pipes bursting. Make sure you turn off the main shut-off valve and then find the lowest spigot in your house and let it run until dry. And then don't forget to flush all of your toilets.
If a power outage occurs during a hot spell, there's little you can do except endure and stay hydrated. A battery-operated personal fan might be a good device to have on hand. Keep in mind the signs of heat stroke and seek emergency medical attention if you see them: red, hot and dry skin, a rapid, strong pulse, dizziness, nausea, confusion or even unconsciousness.
InformationPerhaps the most maddening aspect of a power outage is the inability to find out what's happening. Thankfully, in the era of cell phones a total information vacuum is less common. But being recharging your cell phone could become a problem. Luckily, the Kaito KA500-BK Voyager 5-Way Powered Emergency AM/FM NOAA Radio ($49.99 with free shipping, a low by $10) from J&R not only recharges your cell phone via a handcrank or via solar power, but also functions as a radio. It also boasts a built-in flashlight and reading lamp. Keep in mind though, that this device runs on AA batteries. Other Precuationary Measures
- Make sure you know how to disconnect your garage door from the opener so you can get in and out without power.
- Keep the tank of your car at least half-full of petrol, because gas stations can't pump gas without electricity.
- Keep spare propane on hand for your gas grill if you plan to use it to cook in an emergency.
- Keep at least a week's medication on hand. Pharmacies probably won't open without power. This includes pet medications.
- If you are suffering an outage, unplug sensitive equipment like your computers; the surge when the power comes back on could damage them if you don't have a surge protector hooked up.
Returning to the 19th century life can be distressing, but preparing for it can make the experience a little less painful. Remember to take these precautionary measures before a power outage strikes.
Front page photo credit: Store It Foods