One minute you’re watching TV with the lights on and the fan running, the next minute you’re sitting silently in the dark.
Power failures can strike suddenly without a care for your plans or activities. Some outages are brownouts, in which you experience a temporary interruption in voltage (i.e. the lights dim). Blackouts are complete absences of power that could last a day or more in the worst circumstances.
Knowing what to do when the power goes out can minimize the uncertainty and disruption to your life. It all starts with planning ahead.
There are some instances when power outages are planned. Brownouts and rolling blackouts are often deliberately implemented by power companies to cope with peak power demands and/or to prevent a worse blackout. Your utility company should alert you to planned outages.
For example, the recent news about California power outages actually refers to rolling blackouts imposed by utility companies to protect the grid and surroundings from raging wildfires.
Other causes of power outages include:
More than likely, a power outage will strike without warning due to inclement weather. At that point, you’re scrambling to figure out what to do when you could have had a plan in place all along.
During an extended power outage, it might be difficult to buy food, water, and other supplies. Not only will demand be extremely high, but store computer systems could malfunction and interrupt the purchasing process.
Have a gallon of water per person per day and nonperishable food stocked up ahead of time. We also recommend keeping these 25 items in your home during an emergency. Just knowing you have what you need to survive will reduce the stress and anxiety caused by a power outage.
A backup electric generator is one of the most important things you need during a power outage. It will make it seem like you don’t have a power outage at all, depending on what type you get.
Whole house and standby generators will turn on automatically when they detect a blackout. If properly sized, they can power most, if not all, equipment in your home during an outage. Once utility power comes back on, they automatically switch off.
Standbys are large, hardwired generators that cannot be installed overnight, so planning is necessary. Typically, your local municipality must approve the installation before you can get a professional contractor to your home.
Also, never backfeed or connect your generator directly to your home’s electrical system. Instead, connect appliances directly to the generator by running cords outside or via a manual transfer switch.
Follow the news for weather threats and be aware of any planned power outages from your utility. Lightning, ice, and strong winds can all cause blackouts either directly or indirectly, so if these conditions are expected, be ready for the lights to go out.
As soon as the lights go out, there are a few steps you should take.
Many homeowners have questions when a power outage hits. Appliances we take for granted every day suddenly don’t work. Here are some frequently asked questions and recommendations.
Most modern water heaters rely on some degree of electrical power and will not work during a power outage.
If it’s an electric tank or tankless model, then you’re out of luck. If you have a gas tank or tankless water heater, it will still need main power to switch the pilot light on and heat the water. Only a few, mostly older gas tank water heaters will continue to work.
If you need to shower during an outage, do so early on while the water in the tank is still hot. Once that water cools, that’s it.
Gas burners on modern stoves are controlled electronically and will not work during an outage. Similarly, your oven relies on an igniter and won’t turn on.
You can still get a burner to work, however, by putting a match to it and turning the gas knob to the low position. The match will ignite the flame. Just be very careful doing this.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a full freezer will stay safely cold for 48 hours during a power outage, while a half-full freezer will last 24 hours. In the refrigerator, food will remain safe for four hours during a blackout.
When the power goes out, don’t open the fridge or freezer unless you really must. If you anticipate a prolonged outage, start eating the perishable foods in your fridge first so they don’t go to waste. Take out multiple items at once so you don’t have to open and close the door repeatedly.
Knowing who to call when power is out is extremely important. Do Not call 911 just to report a power outage unless you or someone in your home is hurt or in danger. It’s irresponsible to divert valuable 911 resources from the people who need them most.
Instead, call your local non-emergency number or your power company to report an outage. These resources can also help you keep track of the outage and offer estimates for how long it will last. Remember to stay calm. Most power outages will be minor inconveniences instead of life-threatening situations.
If you prepared for an outage by buying a portable backup generator, congratulations! Your life will be much easier during the outage.
There are several steps and safety considerations to take before starting your generator, however. Read our generator quick start guide for all the details.
When the lights come back on, there are a few commonsense steps to take.
If your power outage accompanied a severe storm, you should check for basement flooding, especially if you didn’t have backup power and your sump pump went out. Check out our Ultimate Flooding Guide for help dealing with a flood.
With the power back on, you can start plugging in and turning on essential appliances again. Do so gradually to allow the system to stabilize. Then you can turn on your secondary electronics.
If the power outage lasted more than four hours, the perishable food in your fridge is no longer safe to eat, and you will have to throw it away before you forget. Remember, your freezer food should still be fine, unless the outage lasted for a day or more.
If you went through the supplies in your home emergency kit, remember to restock for the next power outage. At this point, if you didn’t have a backup generator, you might appreciate its value even more. And don’t forget to reset your electric clocks because they stopped at the time of the outage!
Your power will turn back on eventually, and you'll be ok. Knowing what to do in between will reduce interruptions and unnecessary stress.