Only a few days ago, I found myself without power for almost 48 hours. While two days might not seem like a big deal, it turned out to be a bigger ordeal than I imagined. Now you might wonder what does a power outage have to do with health? Everything. We forget how convenient the electric grid makes our lives.
Everything from the ability to flush a toilet, wash one’s hands, maintain healthy eating habits, and most importantly, stay warm. And then there is the issue of mental health. Stress can run havoc on the body. So being prepared during a power outage has everything to do with health.
I’m offering you the benefit of my mistakes, so you don’t have to have a miserable 48 hours like I did. Yes, I said miserable. Maybe not the first 12 hours, but very quickly after the 12 hour mark, did misery start it’s course.
Lesson 0: Always the Most Inconvenient Time
It seems that the power never goes out at a convenient time. Is there even such a thing? First day of school, first day of a new job, first day of something. Or right before an important event, like a wedding, an important meeting with a boss, or just a planned stay-cation. We are so used to having electricity at our fingertips that we often do not think about what it was like before electricity entered everyone’s household. But the reality is that people used to live just fine with out electricity. Yes, it was a lot more work, and that’s why electricity became so popular. It made our lives much easier and more comfortable.
And comfort is where we generally live day in and day out, at least until an extended power outage. But are we still fit enough to survive an extended power outage? I would like to think so, or at least I thought so, until recently that is. But I put off some projects I knew I needed to do, and didn’t keep up with proper maintenance on some things, and of course, the timing of the power outage was most inconvenient.
Lesson 1: Immediately Presume A Long Term Outage
This was my first mistake when the power went out. Usually the power is only out for a few hours at most. Thinking the power is going to come back on within a day, I flushed the toilets, and washed my hands like normal, and didn’t think to conserve water (I am on a well, not city water). On day two I realized that the water was close to running out from my tank, so I had to cut out normal water usage. Fortunately I always store plenty of drinking water given I live in hurricane territory. So I was able to make do. The problem I ran into is that my drinking water supply depleted quickly when I was using it to wash hands, and make food. What should have been a week’s worth of water was gone in two days. I realized I was careless with my water usage. Yes, I could drive to the store and get more, but that’s beside the point. Plus I wasn’t sure if all my neighbors were also driving to the store to get water. The road conditions were also not good due to weather. Plus, as we all experienced when COVID first occurred, water disappears not only fast, but stores will set limits on how much you can buy.
As hour 47 approached, I took serious inventory of my water supply, and realized in the future I will need to be much more conservative with water usage. Thank goodness the power came back on at hour 48 (literally), and that outage wasn’t a two week long outage, or something really long term like an EMP. It was a good lesson learned, and I won’t make that mistake again.
If your power goes out, don’t assume it will be short. Presume it will be a long term outage and use your items, especially water, accordingly.
Lesson 2: Don’t Assume the Power Company Will Be On Top Of It
In my case here in East Texas, snow is a novelty. Our neighbor told us that the last time he’d seen so much snow was back in 1985 – 36 years ago.
To me, four inches of snow was nothing, I’ve lived in areas of Oregon where it snowed 8 feet over one winter, and temperatures reached -20. I love Texas for this reason, you just don’t see snow of that magnitude, and it doesn’t really get that cold.
But this was a novelty that apparently happens about once every 36 years in East Texas. So the power company was totally unprepared. When there are serious storms in east Texas, there are often power outages. However the power company is normally ready for storm related repairs. This was different.
This was four inches of super wet and heavy snow. The tree branches here don’t generally have to hold such a weight, so they all broke and landed on the power lines. Literally over 10,000 electric meters went down in one small snow storm. The power company used all their crews, hired contracting crews, and borrowed crews from other counties and were working around the clock to fix the damaged lines. But the fact of the matter remains, they just weren’t prepared for this type of outage, this size, and in the freezing cold conditions. I think this is the first time I’ve seen the temperature drop to the teens here. (For all you Montana dwellers, I just want to say, when you’re used to 90 degree weather for most of the year, teens is cold. So don’t judge Texans).
In my multiple calls to the power company in trying to figure out how much longer without power, I was given many hints. One crucial tip was to make sure my neighbors report the outage. The bottom line is, the more meters in the area affected, the more priority they are to the power company. Unless you have a life threatening emergency such as a medical one, you are less important to the power company than a community of 500 people is. So call all your neighbors and tell them to report their outage as well.
Lesson 3: Don’t Put off That Project Until Tomorrow
We’re all busy; life is busy, work is busy. I get it, I’m guilty of busy myself. But I realized that I could have been much colder over those two days had I not tended to my fireplace insert and wood splitting chores to the degree that I did prior to the power going out. I also realized this more when my neighbors called, then came over to borrow firewood for their fireplace. In their defense, they had just moved in as my neighbors barely a year ago, and had many a tribulations in building their home. So their excuse of getting to the project tomorrow, is valid. But the power lines don’t care if your excuse is valid or not.
In the end it worked out, my neighbors have their well on a generator, and I had firewood. While I didn’t need to reach out to them for water, had the outage lasted longer, I may have had to, so I was glad I had to firewood to offer in exchange for clean water.
If you know you need to cut some firewood, do it. If you know you’re low on propane/gas, pick some up. If you know you don’t have much stored water, store some. Don’t put off the projects that you should have done yesterday. Those could be the difference of not just comfort and discomfort, but a difference of life and death.
Lesson 4: How Much Water Do You Really Need?
If you think one or two gallons of water per person per day is adequate, I will tell you that you are not washing your hands nor flushing your toilet. You are not washing dishes, or cooking. You’re probably only drinking the water. And you’re not considering your pets/farm animals if you have them. While I admit I was careless the first few hours of the power outage by using up the water in my pressure holding tank, that is not a mistake I’m going to make again. For those of you on city water, this may be different, as power outages don’t often affect city water. Regardless, city water can go out, and it is still a good idea to be prepared for that in the same way.
So how much water do you really need? This will vary based on your usage, family size, and housing circumstances. The best advice I can give on determining how much water you need is to actually take a couple days where you only use stored water, and limit your water usage, and see how long it lasts. But don’t plan for it, do it randomly, as if the power went out, and now you have no water. Try it, see how long the water lasts, and make appropriate adjustments in how much water you store.
Lesson 5: Keeping Clean
It’s also difficult to wash hands without running water. I personally own a couple of these water dispensers and during outages, they go in my bathroom and kitchen sink. I put a dish pan into the sink to catch the waste water, and use a system where I fill the dispenser with water, wash my hands, then catch the water in the dish pan, and then once the dish pan is full enough I use it to flush the toilet. It’s not a very complex system, but during an outage, saving every bit of water helps.
Also, don’t forget, that you may have to wash your hands outside of normal circumstances, such as when you spill gas or diesel on yourself when trying to refill your generator, or from bringing in fire wood, or just from doing random tasks you normally do not do, like getting the generator out of the garage. Maintaining cleanliness is important especially during an outage, as the increased stressed and overall situation could lead to reduced immune function (and you may not be able to shower/bathe normally either).
Using hand wipes for smaller hand cleaning jobs will save a lot of water. But there are two issues that one must be aware. 1. Many alcohol wipes contain harmful ingredients. 2. If you’re not rotating your supplies regularly, your stores hand wipes will dry out and become useless.
If you have to go to work during a power outage, a shower is unlikely, and laundry is definitely out. If you have to work in the public, you can’t show up to work smelling of diesel fumes from your generator. In this instance a dish pan with warmed water and a wash cloth will be your best option. If you live near a truck stop you could use the shower there (presuming they have power). If you have a big family, a motel/hotel might be a good option (though expensive) for everyone to take a round of showers. This is where you want to really think about your location, your family circumstance, and your public presentation needs to determine how you should approach cleanliness.
Lesson 6: Batteries Require Regular Maintenance
I have this little table by my entrance, it’s kind of ugly, and it’s covered with all kinds of chargers, small devices, Rechargeable Batteries, battery banks, all plugged into a Surge Protector Power Strip. This is what I call my battery station. The fact of the matter is that I don’t really have a convenient location for it, and where it’s at, I have to walk by it everyday that it forces me to check on what’s charging, what’s full, what needs to charge next. There was a time that I kept this table hidden due to it’s ugliness, but I learned a lesson back then too. Out of sight, out of mind, and I wasn’t on top of keeping items charged. When the power went out for a mere eight hours, I couldn’t even charge my cell phone. Lesson learned, table moved, batteries now tended to pretty much daily. I decided that having that table in my face is a good way of making sure that my batteries are fully charged in the event of a power failure. It also makes it easy to plug in a generator extension cord to one power strip and allow for charging multiple items at the same time. It also makes for a great conversation starter when people are staring at it trying to figure out if I’m an undercover MacGyver or something.
Lesson 7: Land Lines Are Not Useless After All
I learned from previous shorter power outages that a cell phone dies quickly when you’re using it to call the phone company multiple times a day, or call your neighbors to check in on them, or calling stores to find out which ones have power because you need something. A land line is actually useful here. Although land lines seem to be a thing of the past and less and less homes have them, I was surprised to find that corded telephones are rather easy to find.
Lesson 8: Have A Backup Power Supply, And Maintain It
Ugly charging station table aside, there is a more important battery that requires maintenance. And that is the battery in your generator (if you have one). I moved a couple years ago, and had some mishaps while moving, then after all was said and done, my dog got ill, and other things happened, and long story short, many things got put on the waiting list to be done. Somehow, in that list, my generator was completely neglected. Well, that was a big mistake.
So there I was with the power outage, when I realized after calling the phone company several times, that this was not going to be a short outage. I think the final clue was when the recorded line said “at this time we do not have an estimated time for completion of repairs, this may be a multi-day repair.” Got it… time to get the generator out.
But remember my excuses of being busy? Yeah, the battery in my generator had died. I did not properly maintained it. Too busy I was, or so I said. But looking back, that’s not true; I was not too busy to run my generator once every couple months for 20 minutes. If I had done that, I wouldn’t have had to jump start my generator using my vehicle. (Useful tip: you can jump start a generator from a vehicle!) Yep, that’s what I had to do, since the generator wouldn’t start because its battery had died.
Fortunately, and despite COVID, my vehicle battery was nicely charged. But the better solution is just run your generator every month or every other month. Put a reminder on your calendar to remind you to do it. It’s a fast and easy chore to prevent yourself from being stuck without a backup power source during an outage. Here’s a great article on keeping your generator healthy.
Speaking of Generators
There are so many options that it’s easy to get lost on what to invest the money on. First, you have to decide how much power you need, and based on that, decide if you can afford that. Most people I know don’t have thousands of dollars sitting around in their bank account, nor do they have the know-how of how to install a generator so that it doesn’t backfeed into the power lines and potentially kill the lineman trying to fix your power.
While a smaller portable generator is not the perfect solution, if all you need to do is heat up some soup or coffee and run some electronics and some lights, you could make do with that. But if you have life saving medical equipment, you may want to review what the requirements are to run them, and buy based on that. If you run a business, then consider how much power you need to keep your business going, at least minimally. The only advice I’m willing to give about choosing a generator is to read all the reviews. Not all brands are created equal, and just because something costs more doesn’t mean it’s better. A generator is something worth spending several days reading reviews and requirements/abilities before making such a purchase. But it’s not something you should hold off on. It should be a priority if you don’t already own one.
There are too many possibilities to list every scenario, and truth be told, finding the right size generator will be something you must decide based on your needs and budget. But don’t get discouraged if they seem un-affordable. Go for smaller if you must, and find a way to pay for it. A generator is a long term investment worth making.
Lesson 9: Make Sure Your Backup Heat Source Is Adequate
This is a very important lesson, and I will admit that I didn’t adequately test mine. As mentioned earlier, I had all these excuses of being too busy to properly evaluate my (new to me) home, and somehow two years went by after moving in that I missed some crucial tasks I should have taken care of when I first moved in. Such as thoroughly testing my fireplace insert. Fortunately, a few months ago I decided to get the insert ready, cleaned it up and learned how to use the insert so that when winter came, I could save on some heating bills. I had already collected and split quite a bit of wood from downed trees that the power company was kind enough to leave behind. So I had the wood. I just had to prep and learn the fireplace insert, or so I thought.
I had to find the user manual online for my specific insert, because they are all a bit different. Except there where three problems I had with the insert:
1. It was old and a part needed replacing.
2. To be most effective it requires an electric fan to move heat out. (Doh! Someone didn’t think that through.)
3. I had never owned an insert before, so had to learn how to use it.
So I did just that, and it took about two weeks for me to figure out how to really use it. By then, winter had come, and I was using it regularly to supplement my heating. But I had not yet tried to completely rely on it for heat.
Yeah, big mistake. Because the insert unit was old and not working optimally, and because too much heat went out the chimney, and the old windows in my home allowed heat to escape, I was not able to keep my house warm enough for my comfort. Then there was the fan on the insert that needs electricity to run. Fortunately I realized I could run the fan from the generator, so I was able to run the fan as needed, but I didn’t think of that until day two.
I apologize in advance to the person or persons who invented an insert that requires electricity to properly use it, but I must say this. THAT IS THE STUPIDEST INVENTION EVER! If you are dependent on your insert to heat your home, but you can’t run it during a power outage because you have no power, then what good does it do you? Okay, lesson learned. For the future I will also include a solution to run the fan during a power outage. I haven’t figured out what that will be yet because it’s something that needs to be inside the house and near the fireplace. Maybe a larger battery bank to plug it into? For now, I have heat powered stove fans that require no power, just heat, and seemed to have helped a bit (better than nothing at least).
You only need to keep the house over freezing so that the plumbing pipes don’t freeze and burst. But let me tell you, even at 60 degrees Fahrenheit, I was in my hat, coat, and warm clothes. I despised having to have to go outside into 20 degree F weather to tend to the generator because coming back in did not feel like it was warm enough.
So consider what your back up source is for heat, and if it’s adequate to heat your home. Test it, try it, and make sure you have plenty of fuel (i.e. seasoned wood, diesel, gas, propane, etc.). And don’t forget regular maintenance. A chimney fire is the last thing you want during a major power outage.
If all else fails, if you can keep your plumbing from freezing, that is good enough. You can always sit in your running car with the heat at full blast to warm up. Bundle up extra blankets during sleep. If you’re using a fireplace or wood stove, close doors to rooms you don’t need to use and move the whole family to the room with the fireplace where the heat is the warmest. And due to the risk of asphyxiation, do not run kerosene heaters indoors (unless you work out a system for proper ventilation).
Lesson 10: It’s Not Just About Heat, It’s Food Storage Too
I spent 48 hours in a 60 degree frigid house, and learned, that even with never opening the freezer door, in a cold (to me) house, without power, the freezer won’t keep everything frozen. While most of the food only partially thawed, my immediate concern went to the frozen chicken. Another day would probably not have made a difference, but a week would have. And if the power outage was in the middle of summer during 100 degree weather?
When COVID first happened, folks bought up all the freezers to store all the meat that was sold out from all the stores (remember the empty shelves not even a year ago?). But a lot of good that amount of meat would do you if you don’t have a way to cook it, and your freezer has no power to prevent it from spoiling.
Just some food for thought.
Lesson 11: Computers Are Our Way of Life
Since I work from home, I am fully dependent on my power and internet connection. One of the best investments I did for my computers are quality UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) systems for each computer, and a quality surge supresser to keep the equipment from getting fried by a power surge or “dirty” power coming from a generator.
A UPS back up battery is basically a battery that your computer and network is plugged into all the time. When the power flickers for a second or two, the UPS kicks in and prevents you from losing power to the items that are plugged in. I’ve tried a few different UPS systems and the basic ones all generally last about an hour after the power goes out. That gives me plenty of time to finish what I’m doing on the computer, then get the generator out, and plug in the surge protector into the extension cord running from the generator (outside). The UPS systems don’t recharge fast that way, but it’s enough to keep them from dying when I have to use the extension cord for something else, like a microwave to heat up dinner. Or lights to see what I’m doing when cooking dinner.
There are some things to consider with UPS systems.
1. How long does the battery keep your unit from dying.
2. Does it have an alarm to warn you that it’s not receiving power.
3. Can you mute the alarm? One of my units I am not able to silence, and let me tell you, it is VERY annoying.
4. Can it cycle dirty power? Depending on your generator/back up power source, you may have dirty power and computer equipment is most sensitive to that.
Lesson 12: It’s Difficult to Read Books by Candlelight
Yeah, I tried. I wanted to relax and make good use of my time by reading a book. But it was dark outside, so it was dark inside. In trying to spare my flashlight batteries, I thought I’d read by candle light. But not only was it challenging to read by candlelight, the stress of the situation made it hard to focus.
One would think that a power outage would be a perfect time to read a book, study for school, or just relax in front of the fire. But that turned out to not be the case, at least for me, and I’m an avid reader.
I was not fully prepared for the stress and uncertainty of not just when the power would come back on, but when would I feel warm enough, when I could take a shower to be presentable, when I could cook a proper meal, when I could turn off the loud generator. When, when, when. It would have been easier if there had been a known time interval, but in real emergency situations that type of information is usually not available. I think a lot of the stress came from the fact that I had business and school obligations to meet, and those were being completely disrupted. It would have been different if all I had to do was just keep things running around the house. But we all have “regular” obligations, and then emergencies pile on top of that. One or the other isn’t so bad, but both at the same time are not fun.
So this again is something to learn and plan for. If you have kids, put aside a special board game, or a special deck of cards to help pass the time. If you like to read books like me, make a small investment in a book reading light that lasts for hours but doesn’t require much battery. I found camping lanterns to be quite useful during a power outage, and with the latest LED technology, these lanterns actually last a surprisingly long time.
Of note, both washing dishes and cooking is not an easy task in candlelight. Neither is finding things in the fridge by flashlight as you don’t want to keep the door open for too long in order to keep things cold inside. Flashlights are super helpful in these situations, but having a camping lamp is much better. While candlelight is alright, a rechargeable headlamp is so much more convenient.
There are so many inventions available for portable LED tent lights, the options can be fun to choose from. Hanging camping bulbs can be hung in places to light up an area without worry of knocking them over, or pointing the light in the right direction.
There is no shortage of LED camping lights right now, and having proper lighting during a blackout is something I can’t stress enough. While candles are fine for situations where batteries are not able to be recharged and we should all have emergency candles for light, candles do pose a fire hazard, only last for so long, and should be used as a last resort. A good quality rechargeable lantern or even a battery powered spot lamp can make a big difference in trying to find your generator in the garage during a black out. So long as your LED light are fully charged and the batteries well maintained.
Cost vs. Ability To Pay
Preparing for emergencies is not inexpensive. I know that for a fact. But, there is a difference between having an ability to purchase something essential, and choosing to purchase something else instead, making one no longer able to purchase the essential item. Let me clarify.
Just about every home I visit, I see a huge (read expensive) flat screen television. I see beautiful furniture, expensive china, and toys galore for the kids. I see vehicles in the driveway that I myself could never afford, and I see restaurant food ordered out and delivered regularly. But many of those same homes, lack a basic generator. Yes, a generator is expensive. Depending on how much you want to power, the price will go up significantly. I myself am not rich, and I do not own a large flat screen television. As a matter of fact, I don’t own a television at all. I have minimal furniture, I cook from scratch, and drive a used car. But I also do own a small diesel generator. It’s nothing fancy, but it is a power source during a power outage, and other than the battery (my fault for neglecting it), it’s very reliable.
My decision to buy a generator instead of a television allowed me to have basic power for that 48 hours. I was able to run some basics like my router and necessary computer/electronic equipment (so I was able to continue to have internet and work). I was able to charge my cell, recharge batteries for my flashlights, and run the microwave to heat meals, heat water, etc. With the water on hand, my generator (and fuel for the generator), and the fireplace and firewood, I was at least “OK”, but certainly not comfortable. To me it was an uncomfortable inconvenience. On the other hand, for someone who had none of these preparations in place, such an event could have been a quite serious problem; even life threatening.
Even more important are those who have medical needs that require power. While the power company will prioritize those who require electricity to sustain life, there is only so much the power company can do when they’re trying to fix downed power lines during a large outage, and it might take longer than usual in unusual conditions. So if electricity is required in this circumstance, I can tell you that a big screen television is the last thing you need. But a generator is a must, whether it’s to keep medication refrigerated (for medication that requires it like insulin), or to maintain basic life. Consider it an investment in your life. During a power outage, you can’t even watch that television.
If you don’t have the means to buy a big screen television, and are trying to figure out how to procure certain big ticket items such as a generator, which is a must have in my opinion and after my last experience, then you can do some creative financing, or find a used unit. Craigslist is a good way to find items locally, so no shipping charges involved, just drive to the person’s house, look at the item, pay and bring it home. You can also offer work in exchange for some items, or sell something you no longer need (like your television) so you can raise the money.
As the old saying goes, if there’s a will, there’s a way. Just a matter of how much will you have.
If you look at the big picture, the cost of a generator is really a small price to pay.
Lesson 13: Do A Test Run – Turn Off Your Power and Give it a Try
It’s one thing to get a list together of essentials, it’s another to have to use them when an emergency arises having never opened the box to see what’s in it. As I learned once when you open a box expecting a tent, a tent might not be in it. (True story. Fortunately I was able to build a tent from tarps and extra stakes. But I could have been sleeping under the stars. Lesson learned.)
Procuring supplies is simply not enough. You have to keep the batteries charged, the fuel fresh, and the inventory rotated so that things don’t deteriorate by the time you actually need them. This is especially true when keeping emergency supplies in a vehicle where the supplies are exposed to extreme temperature variations.
The best way to prepare yourself for an extended power outage is to literally go turn off your power at the breaker box (and I mean as soon as you finish this article), and test your emergency supplies and see if you’ve got what you need.
Do not plan your practice outage.
As soon as you’re done reading this, go to your breaker box, and flip the switch, and pretend you have a power outage. Right now, yes, I said right now. A power outage is not going to wait for you to be ready.
Are you prepared? Do you have what you need? Do you know how to use what you have? Can you find what you have? Take good notes on everything you don’t have but need or wish you had. Take note of what you don’t know but need to. Take note of what you cannot find when you need it. Take good notes on all the lessons you learn from such a test run – you will be much better off when the real thing happens.
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