The United States has more blackouts than any other developed country, and power outages are becoming more frequent in the U.S. due to an aging power grid and climate change causing an increase in severe weather. Recent hurricanes have left hundreds of thousands of households without power, often for days or even weeks at a time.
Yet, our homes and businesses are designed to have electricity around the clock. During blackouts, our homes are dark and inhospitable. Food in the refrigerator can spoil, home offices become unproductive, and pipes can freeze when heating systems shut down. What can you do to prepare for power outages and to minimize their impact?
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Why Are Power Outages Becoming More Common in the US?
Unfortunately, increases in extreme temperatures, severe weather, and energy demand will likely make power outages more common in the future. The average annual number of weather-related power outages increased by approximately 78% during 2011-2021 compared to the previous decade.
For example, hurricanes can wipe out power lines due to high winds, flooding, and falling trees and debris. Decreased rain and snowfall can diminish hydroelectric production and increase fire risk. In wildfire-prone areas, power companies may implement public safety power shutoffs, intentionally cutting off power to prevent wildfires when there is a severe risk.
How Can I Prepare for Power Outages?
There are many steps you can take to safeguard your family and prepare for blackouts.
Know the Power Grid Vulnerabilities in Your Area
Maine has the most frequent blackouts of any state, with an average of 3.9 annually per utility customer, but Florida leads the country for the longest outages with an average of 14.6 hours.
The 10 states with the most frequent power outages are:
- West Virginia
Power outages are much less common in other states, including Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. Knowing the likelihood that you will have an extended power outage and during which season can help you determine how prepared you need to be and for what conditions.
For example, if winter power outages are more likely and you live in a cold climate, think about how to stay warm and prevent the pipes from freezing. If outages during heat waves are likely in your area, consider how to stay cool.
Consider the Impacts of No Power
First and foremost, think about home safety. Most heating and cooling systems require electricity to operate. Even most natural gas and propane-powered furnaces and boilers need power. Could a blackout mean that your home reaches unsafe temperatures?
Do you have medical equipment that relies on electricity? Does your garage door require electricity to open, causing your car to get stuck inside? If so, determine how to open the door without power or how to disconnect a power garage door opener so it works manually. If you drive an electric vehicle, be sure to charge it if you are likely to lose power.
Often, the power goes out at somewhat predictable times. If you are in the path of a severe storm or hurricane, prepare in advance. If you live in a high fire risk area, follow the local news to determine if a public safety power shutoff is likely. It’s also helpful to know if there are places in your community that you can go to stay warm in the winter or cool off in the summer.
Run a Generator Safely
Many households rely on portable generators to provide emergency power during blackouts. If you have one, never run it indoors because the exhaust will make your home unsafe. Be sure to locate it at a safe distance from windows and doors to avoid deadly gases from accumulating. Also, there are solar-powered generators that generate no harmful emissions.
Consider Buying a Portable Solar System With Batteries
There are many portable solar systems for home use that can charge devices, such as cell phones or flashlights. Some include batteries that you should make sure are fully charged if a power outage is likely.
Stay Cool During Heat Waves
Unfortunately, summer heat waves can cause short power outages when increased electrical use overloads the utility grid. If the power fails, it is essential to stay cool. Close the curtains, blinds, or shades in the east, west, and south-facing windows and spend time in the coolest rooms in the house, such as the basement or spaces on the north side of the home. Close the door to the hottest rooms in the house to keep other areas cooler.
Consider buying a battery-operated fan and use water to cool yourself down. For example, wetting your hair or placing a wet scarf on your neck can help stop you from overheating. Also, ensure you have ample water on hand to stay hydrated, which is critical during heat waves.
Stay Warm During Winter Storms
During the 2021 Texas Power Crisis, many homes were without heat for extended periods, and hundreds of medically vulnerable people died. A backup source of heat that doesn’t require electricity, such as a wood stove, can help keep your home warm. Likewise, a kerosene heater can be useful, but make sure it is venting properly.
Use sleeping bags and warm clothing to keep warm, or consider staying with friends, family, or a hotel if this option is available. If you are concerned the pipes will freeze, take actions to help prevent this from happening, such as running the faucets at a fast drip.
Store Water for Emergencies
Staying hydrated is critical, and some homes do not have water during blackouts. The CDC recommends at least 1 gallon of water per person per day for adequate hydration and sanitation. Refilling bottles you already have is probably the greenest way to achieve this, but you can purchase containers specifically for water storage. Likewise, having hydrating beverages around is helpful, especially during the summer.
If a power outage is likely and will cause your home to not have water, consider filling the bathtub. Although you will not want to drink this water, it can be useful for cleaning and sanitation. For example, you can flush the toilet with a bucket of water.
Have Shelf-Stable Food on Hand
If you don’t keep much food in your house or tend to cook from scratch, make sure you have available food that you can readily eat, especially if it is temporarily unsafe to drive. Avoid opening the refrigerator or freezer to maintain cooler temperatures and prevent food from spoiling.
Having some form of lighting is critical during power outages, especially when they happen in the winter when the nights are long. Make sure your flashlights are properly charged or have adequate battery life. Also, consider your lighting needs. For example, do you need a hands-free flashlight to help you complete tasks or a lantern for room lighting?
Remember Food Safety
If your power was out for more than a couple of hours, it’s essential to determine what food is no longer safe to eat. If your refrigerator stays at 40 degrees or lower, the food should still be safe to eat afterward. However, if it is above that temperature for more than a couple of hours, beware of spoiled food.
A freezer keeps food frozen for up to 48 hours without power, especially if it is full. If you have space in your freezer and a power outage is likely, fill water bottles and put them in your freezer. Likewise, the same water bottle trick helps keep your refrigerator cool during a blackout. Large zip-lock bags can also work if you don’t have spare water bottles.
Who Do I Know Who Might Need Help?
Power outages are also a good time to pull together and help friends, neighbors, and family members in need. Remember to check on people who might be medically vulnerable, as blackouts can be especially taxing on them.