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When the power goes out, here’s what to do

Whatever you do, don't open the fridge just yet

Emergency supplies on a table during a power outage Credit: Getty Images / JulNichols

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Power outages: They're always an inconvenience, but can quickly turn into a dangerous situation. Whether it's from downed power lines due to a storm or electrical equipment failure, a power outage can happen in an instant. While you might not be able to predict exactly when one will strike, you can most definitely prepare ahead.

In addition to some proactive prepping, there are a few steps you'll want to take just after the power goes out to keep your perishable food and electronics safe, along with safety tips you should follow for generator use if you've got one.

As chilling temperatures and powerful snowstorms move throughout the country, now is as good a time as any to be prepared with the tools and knowledge to keep you and your home safe during a potential power outage.

If you’re stuck in the dark, here’s what to do to manage until the lights come back on.

Use candles with caution

Older woman reading next to lit candles in a dark room
Credit: Getty Images / SteveMcsweeny

Candles are a real fire hazard. If you're burning some during a power outage, be sure to keep them out of reach of children and pets.

Especially in the nighttime hours, it can be hard to navigate the home without any lighting. If you have any flashlights or battery-powered candles, use those first.

If you’re in a pinch, you can use candles, as long as you use them safely and don’t leave one burning unattended.

The CDC says if you must use candles, use candle holders and place candles away from anything that could be flammable.

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Understand when to open the fridge—and when to not

Person holding jug of milk in front of lit fridge with other food stored inside
Credit: Getty Images / ziggy1

It's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to eating questionable perishable goods. Toss out items like milk or meat if you're unsure.

When the power goes out, one of your first concerns might be your food supply. That’s why it’s important to safely store and manage your refrigerated food, especially if you don’t have a backup emergency kit with non-perishable food.

Once the power goes out, try not to open your fridge or freezer unless absolutely necessary. According to the American Red Cross, an unopened refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours, while an unopened full freezer will keep the temperature for about 48 hours (or 24 hours if it is half full).

Unfortunately, if the power goes out for an extended period of time, there's a chance you'll end up having food waste. Once the power is restored, there are a few things you can do to see if your food is still safe to eat or not. If you have a food thermometer on hand, measure the temperature of your food in the fridge—the FDA says food under 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below is safe to consume if the power was out for no more than four hours.

Once all is said and done and power is restored, be sure to check your refrigerated food supply to make sure nothing has spoiled.

Ready.gov recommends throwing out perishable foods—dairy products, meats, fish, soft cheeses, and cooked vegetables—that have been exposed to temperatures 40 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for two hours or more. Additionally, it should be tossed if the food has a new or unusual odor, color, or texture.

If you’re still unsure if your food is safe, it’s best to err on the side of caution and dispose of it.

For future power outages, especially those you come home to without knowing how long it’s been out, you can use the “quarter on a cup” method to get a visual idea of your freezer temps. Simply freeze a cup of water, then put it in the refrigerator with a quarter on top of it before you leave your home.

Jonathan Chan, Senior Manager of Lab Operations at Reviewed, explains, “If the quarter [remains] on top, you're fine; but, if it [has sunk] more than half an inch down, your food has been exposed to warm temperatures for a prolonged period of time.”

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Unplug your electronics and appliances

Person unplugging plug from electrical outlet
Credit: Getty Images / nipastock

When electricity is restored, don't rush to plug in your electronics and appliances. Give it a few minutes to prevent overwhelming your power supplier, as many around your city may be rushing to do the same.

Just after the power goes out, make it a priority to walk through your home and disconnect all appliances and electronics from wall outlets—this includes things like microwaves, washers and dryers, and computers. Doing so will avoid power surge damage, which can happen instantly once power is restored.

If you have a surge protector, plug your most important items into it to avoid damaging them.

Additionally, try to keep one light plugged in—or use a light that’s wired into your home—and make sure it’s turned on so you’ll know if power has been restored.

Avoid using a gas stove or oven as a heat source to stay warm. Not only should these appliances be unplugged, but using them to heat the home can pose a fire danger and can create harmful carbon monoxide fumes.

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Use your generator, but do so safely

A red portable generator sitting on snow next to house
Credit: Getty Images / Vitaliy Halenov

If you use a generator, read up on your particular generator’s guide or consult organizations like the Red Cross for more information.

In the event of a blackout, a backup generator can keep vital appliances like your heating and cooling systems up and running. However, they must be used properly or can result in more harm than good.

Generators produce carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas that can result in sickness or death and can also pose other dangers like electrocution or fire if not used safely.

The first rule of thumb when it comes to generator safety—no matter if it’s a standby or portable generator—is to never, ever use them indoors. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends keeping generators outdoors, at least 15 feet away from the home or open windows to avoid exhaust fumes from entering the home.

Many power outages come as a result of a serious storm. While you may want to use your generator right as the storm passes through, you should not use it in rainy or wet conditions. At all times, your generator should sit under some sort of canopy-like structure, to keep it safe and dry.

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Keep electronics, like phones, charged

Charing an iPhone in car with tan interior using a car charger
Credit: Getty Images / CASEZY

During a power outage, you can charge your phone in your car. But, investing in a portable power bank as part of your emergency kit is a better plan for future outages.

While hand-crank radios are great for getting vital information when you don’t have power, having charged electronics—especially a charged cell phone—can be essential for staying in the know about your area’s safety and power outage status.

One smart tip is to charge your phone via your laptop. It doesn’t have to be connected to a power source, so you use whatever battery life your laptop has left to keep your cell phone going.

You can also charge electronics in the car for a while. If your car is parked in your garage, don’t stay in the space if you plan on letting the car run. You want to avoid high levels of carbon monoxide.

If you happen to be caught off guard without fully charged electronics, or the power outage goes on for an extended period of time, you may need some extra power backup. A portable battery pack is a must-have for this reason, and can even come in handy beyond a power outage. A reliable and powerful battery pack we've tested is the Mophie PowerStation PD. With 18 Watts of power—enough to charge two phones at once—this may come in handy if you're looking to charge up your phone or other electronic devices.

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Hunker down in a safe spot

Older couple sitting on couch together, one holding a tablet and the other reading a book, facing each other smiling
Credit: Getty Images / JohnnyGreig

When a power outage happens, try to remain in a space that is accessible for all. Having a back-up generator may be useful for those who rely on motorized wheelchairs, elevators, and other electric-powered equipment.

If you’ve decided to stay put in the house, stay in a central spot that you know will be safe to navigate during the day and nighttime hours to avoid any accidental trips or falls. You can concentrate your battery-powered lights and candles in this area to keep it well-lit.

If you are sheltering in place, make sure you can evacuate it without complications. For example, consider accessibility needs. If someone in your home relies on a stairlift that requires electricity to function, shelter on the ground level of your home unless there is potential for something like a flood to occur.

Evaluate your local situation

Emergency kit supplies including a stereo, lantern, first aid kit, backpack, flashlights, a water jug, and a few smaller items
Credit: Getty Images / JulNichols

If local authorities are warning about a potential storm or power outage, prepare an emergency kit beforehand, if possible. Make sure it includes a hand-crank or battery-powered radio to stay up-to-date about your area’s situation.

Every emergency scenario is different, so it’s important to stay in the know about your local situation. If you have a hand-crank radio on hand or are signed up for phone alerts from local officials, be sure to follow local guidelines as the emergency situation evolves.

Additionally, it’s possible that your home may become a place that’s too hot, too cold, or just plain dangerous to be in during an emergency situation. If you feel that the best next step is to evacuate to a public shelter, be sure to follow the latest CDC guidelines.

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