Have you considered how your life would freeze to a standstill if a general outage cut electric power for more than two or three days? As every summer dawns, it's a question more and more people ask, because demand for electric power is growing inexorably, and summertime is when the grid always gets strained to the max. Many experts say all it will take is one unusually bad heat wave and a single computer glitch. The last major outage happened in the summer of 2003, and it affected over 55 million people.
Our lives depend on electricity more than just about anything else, but there are few things we take so for granted. (You couldn't read this post without it.) Environmentalists have effectively put a stop to all new construction of traditional power stations, and a growing portion of new construction is for clean energy sources. Clean energy may sound sexy, but it's still unreliable: Wind turbines generate electricity only when the wind blows, which might not be when you need it. Likewise, solar energy generation fluctuates with weather conditions. All it takes is one confluence of circumstances to shut down your power.
That's a mess. Once your cell phone's battery runs down, how will you recharge it? Think you can run down to the local Starbucks to get some coffee (your coffeemaker is dead, remember) and recharge your laptop, cell phone, tablet, iPod, toothbrush and shaver? Think again. All your neighbors will have descended on that little coffee shop en masse because they'll be without power too.
Here's a list of but a few things that go away in the event of a general power outage:
- Lights (obviously)
- Heat and cooling — even gas heating requires electricity to pump the air
- Baths and showers — no heat means cold washing (assuming you can get running water)
- Medical support systems
- Food storage — refrigerators and freezers
- Food preparation — microwaves, stoves and ovens (even gas ovens use electricity)
- Food availability — stores need electricity too
- Entertainment — television and radio (not to mention video games)
- Communication — cell towers and Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) exchanges require electricity
- Gas for your automobile — gas pumps run on electricity
The majority of power outages come in times of temperature stress, i.e., winter or summer, when heating or cooling are drains on the system. They impact you in many ways, some of which are hard to foresee. For instance, opening your garage door suddenly becomes a project requiring effort and planning.
It's true that the big things like water pumping stations and telephone exchanges often have redundant backup power generators, but those sometimes get overloaded when panic strikes and everyone becomes desperate to make calls and fill old milk containers with drinking water.
That's the bad news. The good news is there is a lot you can do to prepare yourself and do when a massive outage strikes unexpectedly.
Food: Have at least a week's worth of dry food rations stored away, especially high-energy foods, like peanut butter, jelly, crackers, granola bars, and trail mix. Also include some comfort/stress foods: cookies, hard candy, sweetened cereals, lollipops, instant (or pre-ground) coffee, tea bags, and a supply of things like salt, pepper, sugar, etc. Keep a good supply of paper or plastic plates and silverware, as well as a roll or two of paper towels. Oh, and don't forget a manual can opener.
Water: Store at least 1 gallon of bottled water per day per person, plus more for pets, and powdered foods. When power goes out, water purification systems may not be functioning fully, so don't rely on tap water until the crisis has passed.
Gas: Make it a habit never to let your vehicles' gas tanks get below half. When a general power outage strikes, gas pumps die because they run on electricity.
Cash: Keep at least a couple hundred dollars in hard cash handy. Everyone selling you something will not have power for cash registers, scanners, and that type of thing. You'll be dead in the water if all you have is plastic.
Grill: If you have a patio grill, get a stovetop kettle if you don't have one. That will allow you to boil water outside. Never use a generator, grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal burning devices inside a home, garage, basement, crawlspace or any partially enclosed area. We usually keep a spare full propane tank (although, to be honest, its main purpose is to keep the party going if the previous one runs out while the burgers are on the grill).
Cooler: Get a cheap, large-capacity cooler to store the food caught in the freezer and refrigerator. It's a good idea to keep a few two-liter bottles filled with water in your freezer — they will keep food cold in a cooler for a long time.
Light: Get a flashlight, candles and lighter (or matches). And be sure to add a supply of batteries. A good option is keeping a half-dozen cheap solar garden stake lights lying around. They'll charge every day and have enough light to last most of the night. At about $2 per, that's a cheap, reliable light source.
Trash: Something many people forget is a supply of trash bags and moist towelettes for sanitation needs. If the power outage affects the water supply, you may not have the use of your toilets.
Medication: Ask your pharmacist to keep you a month ahead on your prescriptions for this emergency. If someone in your home is dependent on electric-powered, life-sustaining equipment, remember to include backup power in your evacuation plan. If you are on electrically operated life support systems or special equipment for heart or kidney problems, be sure to notify your utility now, in advance of any outages. They will put you on a list and make sure your power needs are provided for first. Oh, and don't forget the first-aid kit.
People: Set up an agreement with people about two to three hundred miles away that you can go and stay with. It's infinitely less stressful to simply get in your car and drive somewhere else where there's still power so you can wait out the crisis. It will be difficult to call around when the power is out, so it's best to set up two or three families with whom you have an arrangement where if anyone has a major crisis, they know they're welcome somewhere else for the duration of the emergency.
Documents: It's wise to get copies of things like deeds, wills, titles, medication lists, insurance policies, birth certificates, etc. Keep them in the same place as your emergency cash. People who provide aid may require some form of identification, and if the insurance company comes to help, it speeds things up if you have a copy of your policy right there. It's not a bad idea to keep your computer backups on a portable hard drive and leave it with the emergency supplies.
Chargers: In the event that you go and stay with someone, it's nice to have a basic set of chargers for your phones, computers and other gadgets together in one place, so you can just grab them and go. Also add a long extension cord with multiple outlets to plug all of those chargers in at the same time. We have a power inverter. Plug it into your car and you have 110V to power just about anything, including a coffee maker. (This of course makes it even more important to not be too low on gas.) :)
POTS phone: Keep a non-cordless, old-school telephone around. The plain old telephone service is usually the last to go out. It allows you make phone calls, but it also allows the authorities to get hold of you with reverse 911 calls. Tape the following phone numbers to the bottom of your land-line telephone or inside a telephone book:
- Fire department
- Telephone companies
- Utility companies
- Police department
Shutoffs: Find out where each utility shut off is — electricity, water and gas. Know how to turn each off. Have the proper tools to do so, and know where they are located. If you have an automatic garage door, check the instructions or with the manufacturer to learn how to open the door manually (without power). Most automatic garage door openers have a red or yellow knob hanging from a string which disengages the garage door from the track of the opener.
And, finally, don't forget to include a few board games. You'll have a lot of time with little else to do, so you may as well turn the crisis into a fun, bonding experience.
When the outage strikes
First thing is go to a grocery store right away to buy anything you need. Be armed with cash, because their registers and scanners won't work. They won't have lights, and they probably will want to sell perishable produce as quickly as possible. Be prepared for crowds, and also be prepared to let others have something too — don't hog everything for yourself.
If you have a plan in place to go and stay with people who are out of the outage area, pack and go. Expect roads to be congested and traffic lights not to work. Be sure to unplug or shut off everything, because when the power comes back on, there may be surges which can cause damage. Turning off all breakers is usually a quick and easy way to do this.
If you're staying, unplug/turn off everything, but leave a single light turned on, so you can see when power is restored.
To maintain the refrigerated and frozen foods, keep fridge and freezer openings to a minimum.
Practice living without connected utilities. Do it periodically. You will discover what your real needs are and you'll learn how to meet them in an emergency.
In winter, allow a small stream of water to run from faucets in order to prevent water pipes from freezing. The American Red Cross advises this action and says, “Running water through the pipe — even at a trickle — helps prevent pipes from freezing.” In frigid weather, if your power is likely to be out for more than a few days, you may want to call your plumber and ask about draining your home's water pipes so they don't freeze and burst.
An extended power outage, be it from overloading or terrorist action, will be a major emergency, and will cause damage in many ways. However, with some basic and inexpensive preparation, you can keep that damage to a minimum.
What else can you think of to prepare for a power outage? Feel free to add them in the comment section below.
William Cowie spent 30 years in senior management (CFO/CEO) before retiring. He has a bachelor's, a master's, and a partial doctorate in management and strategy. Author of the book “The Four Seasons of the Economy,” William also assists medium-sized businesses in the use of the Four Season Strategy to help them capitalize on economic cycles. He runs two blogs: Bite the Bullet Investing (investing) and Drop Dead Money (the economy) and writes for several other blogs in addition.