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Are you ready for a major power outage?

Learn what you should have ready in case the lights go out for an extended period.

By QuinStreet Jul 17, 2014 11:50AM

This post comes from William Cowie at partner site

Get Rich Slowly on MSN MoneyHave 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 arrives, 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.

Major storm © Exactostock/SuperStockOur 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.) 

Telephone: 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.

More from Get Rich Slowly

Jul 17, 2014 12:46PM

Who writes this crap ?


Head to the grocery store with cash ? They will tell you that they can't do transactions until the power comes back on. Even if they could, the cashiers can't add and subtract anymore, or make change. These are  modern supermarkets, where everything depends on electronics, not Sam Drucker's general store.


Stay a month ahead on meds ? Try filling a prescription that is more than a few days from the refill date. The insurance company will force the pharmacy to put a hold on the refill until it is closer to the 30 day period. Been there, done that.


Now for the group of people 2-3 hundred miles away. Do I just drive to a town that far away and stand in a parking lot with a sign that says: Emergency backup home needed. Will pay top dollar.



None of this has been an issue for almost 64 years, so I won't pick today to start worrying about it. Is it really this easy to get a job writing this crap ?

Jul 18, 2014 9:41AM
Jul 18, 2014 8:34AM

I went 2 weeks without power once.  BEWARE if you have a generator.  People hear that running and they don't just politely ask or ice cubes etc.  They D-E-M-A-N-D ice, use of your fridge and even went as far as sneaking an extension cord to plug into it in the middle of the night, and woe to you who has the audacity to deny them.  I had neighbors get violent.  One almost kicked my door down and shouted racist slurs at me (Yes there are racial slurs for white people).  Kinda hard to get the cops out there when no phones work.


When it comes to being prepaired, you not only have to factor in your needs but how much hasstle you're willing to go through to protect it as well as how much you are OK parting with to keep the wolves from the door.

Jul 17, 2014 8:35PM
so many articles with no comment section...wonder why...
Jul 17, 2014 7:52PM
And all the B.S. on MSN would go away, now that's a perk!
Jul 17, 2014 9:25PM
Twice we were without external power for 8 days. Once after hurricane Irene and once after Hurricane Sandy. We live in the country and we have at least one power outage a year...sometimes in winter and sometimes in the hurricane season. We were smart...after a bad outage in the winter we decided that was that and we bought a whole house generator powered by propane. It has saved us from frozen water pipes in the winter and loss of food in our freezer and fridges in the summer as well as being able to stay at home instead of packing off to one of our kids. It has paid for itself over and over.
Jul 17, 2014 10:51PM

Since the US Federales have decided to turn down(tax out of existence) all of the US coal burning power plants we can expect a lot of 3rd world style rolling blackouts and outages. We simply can't replace them in time to avert unnecessary crisis and more costly electric bills for consumers. I work in the industry so I'm not making this up.

Since many are worshiping the earth and hating humans that live on the earth we get these wacky regulations. The new politically correct highest moral virtue is to hate yourself and love nature. If you disagree with my assessment please consider suicide so that you won't hurt the earth anymore, ya' d@^^ parasite...


Jul 17, 2014 8:56PM

During the derecho of 2012, we were without power for over 4 days - yeah, I know - peanuts compared to some other stories here.  However I have a small gasoline generator that puts out 1200 watts.  I kept it outside between a parked car and the garage door, ran extension lines inside and powered 2 refrigerators and a small window AC unit I put in a basement window.  We slept in the basement for 4 nights as the nighttime temperatures were still in the '80s and nearly 100 during the day.  Cold showers we got used to and in light of the hot and humid weather, rather enjoyable.  Also have an outdoor grill with a full propane tank so we had no problem cooking meals.  Luckily the municipal water supply has backup diesel pumps to keep the tanks full, but we filled a couple bathtubs just in case, and had several of those 5.2 gallon water bottles from Sam's Club as well.

Luckily the toilets worked fine as well - dunno if we'd like the idea of pooping in plastic bags..  And boredom not much of a problem either - everybody has an iPad or other tablet.  I read quite a few Kindle e-books that I had downloaded beforehand for vacation time. 

One thing the article didn't mention - getting an automotive 12V - to 120V ac converter is a good idea if your car doesn't have one built-in.  That way you can also recharge things like laptops in addition to cellphone and tablet devices as you drive around.  My Honda Pilot has 2 12V outlets, a 120V outlet and a USB port, so that's 4 devices that can charge right there.  Found out that the USB port won't charge an Asus Transformer tablet despite the USB cable - takes a special 18V charger.   

Jul 17, 2014 9:22PM

Don't think the grocery stores will be operating either. Having cash as the article put won't matter. Registers run on electricity too. Power generators might kick in but that usually operates selected lighting spots. Rest of the suggestions are pretty good ones.

Might want to keep some self defense measures handy too. Depending on your neighborhood.

Jul 17, 2014 9:53PM
Obama is destroying our ability to provide economical & reliable electricity. We have this wonderful resource of coal but the dim-wits want to chase unproven methods of what they call 'economical' power. Now most of you are saying (or screaming), coal pollutes the environment & power plants need to conform to the EPA standards for the environment. Ok- I certainly don't want a smog cloud like they have in China all the time but why won't our government give these plants subsidies to control emissions? DON'T SCREW THE POUCH! Obama must help coal plants instead of shutting them down by helping them in investing in technology that is cost effective NOW ! Not chase probable alternative power that may not see any cost effectiveness for decades. I'm not saying turn your back on solar, wind, or others; but focus on what works now. 
Jul 18, 2014 9:39AM
The real threat is that it would take less that 24 terrorist snipers to disable a very large part of the grid
Jul 18, 2014 10:12AM

Not mentioned:

FIREARM(S)! Make sure to have one or more. This to protect yourself and home by arming yourself. Best: A 12-gauge shotgun and/or an AR-15 like rifle. Reasons: Loss of electricity (blackouts) leads to marauders – IE, PUNKS who loot stores, commit random Assaults, Robberies, and thefts. As for dialing 911 for help – FORGETABOUTIT! The police will be too overwhelmed to respond to your emergency. TRANSLATION: YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN.

Jul 18, 2014 9:35AM
When 40% of coal fired plants shut down I sure hope the sun shines all the time for our solar panels and the wind blows to run our wind mills!!! 
Jul 17, 2014 7:41PM
'Are you ready for a major power outage?' - here I thought this article was about the illegal, overreach by Obama and the EPA trying to crash the energy sector of the economy, adding millions of dollars more to the cost of energy production in the US.
Jul 18, 2014 1:36AM
I like the rechargeable wind up flashlights, the prices have come way down on them. Most are using LEDs so they last a little longer between wind ups, the down fall is the limited distance of a focused beam. They're also handy to keep in a vehicle, never need to buy batteries for them either.
I haven't tried a wind up radio yet, would probably do in a pinch. 

Water, I keep bottled drinking water for outages (I have a well), for bathing and sanitary purposes no problem. Go down to the lake & fill a few 5 gallon buckets to flush toilets with, need a bath, don't forget to bring soap. 

The writer says to buy a cheap cooler, BS, spend a little bit more and get a good cooler that will hold ice for at least a few days. The one i have was advertised to hold ice for 5 days, and i think it will if its kept out of the direct sun.

Food prep. if your really in a pinch and all you have to do is warm up some canned food, put it on the dashboard of your vehicle for about 1 hour while its facing the sun. You'll be surprised how hot the contents will get even on a cool day.
Jul 18, 2014 10:08AM
News flash to the freeloaders. Start saving your beer and pot money  now, soYOU CAN PROVIDE YOUR CHILD/children with their  school supplies paid for by you and not someone else. School will be on soon, just saying.
Jul 18, 2014 6:35AM
Communications. Plain old telephones(pots) have separate back up power in central office's big diesel generators. Modern communities have buried underground communication installations and will be safe from weather or most air attacks. Electric air phones or pbx's (push button exchanges) that need in house electricity will fail without  back up power at location of equipment. Cell phones will fail in areas with damage to cell towers. They also have a problem with over loading the switch networks in emergencies and all you will get is a fast busy signal (all trunks busy). Temperature inversions and other weather conditions can take down satellite communications. Internet carriers also have back up power. Pots lines and dial up internet will have the best survival rate in a huge emergency.
Jul 18, 2014 11:06AM
POTS landline phones DO NOT require that the power be on, BUT you need a wired handset, not a wireless one.
Jul 18, 2014 11:08AM
If you have the money, just do what my dad did: install a generator big enough to run the whole house, including the a/c and heat.  He spent about 15 grand, but he had a comfortable house during and after hurricanes when everybody else was suffering.
Jul 18, 2014 11:21AM
I remember obama making a huge fuss over the sad shape of the power grid about 4 years ago. Everyday he kept harping about it. That went on for a few weeks, then NOT ANOTHER WORD about it.  
I just wonder if he has plans for an "Unexpected" power outage, now that we are all looking at the illegal alien problem and Russia shooting down passenger planes. 
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