When the power goes out, here’s what to do
Don't let an outage ruin more than your next Netflix binge
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In what’s being called an “unprecedented” storm by the National Weather Service, much of the U.S. has been affected by frigid temperatures, freezing rain, and large amounts of snow. Included are states like Texas, where more than 4.3 million residents are without power in record-low temperatures.
Power outages can happen in an instant, whether it’s an incoming snowstorm or unexpected rolling blackouts in your city. Even homes with solar panels may experience power loss if they don’t have solar battery backup systems.
While keeping your home prepared for an outage ahead of time with food, flashlights, and coolers is ideal, it’s just as key to know the proper steps to take after the power goes out.
If you’re stuck in the dark, here’s what to do, so you can manage until the lights come back on.
Candles—to use or not to use them
But, 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.
Understand when to open the fridge—or not
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).
If the power has not returned after a few hours and you’re concerned about food going to waste, eat perishable foods from the fridge first. 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. This food should be cooked and eaten as soon as possible.
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—like 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, or if the food has a new 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 toss 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 Lab Technician 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.”
Unplug your electronics and appliances
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 should include 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.
Use your generator, but do so safely
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 help.
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 a “canopy-like structure” to keep it safe and dry.
For more details on generator safety guidelines, visit the U.S. Department of Energy’s site.
Keep electronics, like phones, charged
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 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.
In an emergency, having charged electronics—especially cell phones—can help keep you up-to-date on your area’s safety and power outage status.
Stay in a safe spot
If you’ve decided to stay put in the house, try to stay in a central spot that you know will be safe to navigate during the day and nighttime hours. 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 issues: 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
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 CDC guidelines. Practice social distancing, wear masks, and wash your hands frequently.
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