Power outages have been heavily on the radar lately all throughout California. It was apparent that PG&E’s equipment failure led to California’s deadliest and most destructive fire in history, so now the power company has decided to shut off the power at any given moment that poses a high fire risk.
That solution might indeed save many people’s homes from the danger of a fire, but it provides an immense inconvenience and danger to those who heavily depend on electricity in their day-to-day lives.
On a different spectrum, power outages have become commonplace for those living in hurricane and tornado-prone areas, as well as metropolitan cities that face extreme weather.
Whichever place you live in, you’re not immune to power outages so it’s best to know what to expect so you’re already prepared on the day that it happens.
[This is a long article about becoming prepared for power outages, so the links in the Table of Contents may help you to navigate through the page. If you don't have much time and want to dive right into the meat of this article, please click here.]
Interesting facts about power outages
- Severe weather and storms are the leading cause of power outages.
- In 2016, the average time that an outage lasted in the United States varied between 27 minutes to 6 hours (depending on the State). When natural disasters were the cause of the outage, however, the average time increased to 20 hours.
- Some Puerto Ricans waited up to 11 months for the power to be restored after Hurricane Maria.
- In 2017, 36.7 million US Americans were affected by a power outage.
- For the past 3 consecutive years, California reported having the most amount of outages, followed by Texas, New York, and Ohio.
- A report by Briggs & Stratton concluded that the largest cost families face in relation to blackouts is property damage, which comes to an average of just under $2,000.
- In 2019, PG&E intentionally cut off the power to approximately 800,000 customers in 22 counties throughout California. Their reasoning was to prevent a wildfire that could result from the high winds.
Terms you should know
Partial power outage: A partial power outage means that only a portion of the home is compromised, rather than the entire property or building. The cause of this issue might be something as simple as a circuit breaker flipping, a blown fuse, or a much deeper problem involving a wiring failure.
Planned power outage: A planned power outage is when the electric company schedules a power outage in a specific area. This is typical when maintenance needs to be done on the power lines, so it’s safest for crews to work while the power is shut off. In other scenarios, there may be planned power outages to prevent the possibility of disasters, like wildfire prevention and electrocution after a flood or hurricane.
Power surge: A power surge is when there’s a spike (high and quick increase) in the electrical current traveling from a power line to the socket in your home. A surge may occur during a thunderstorm if there’s lightning, as well as during the moment when the power is restored after a power outage. A power surge has the potential to fry any appliance plugged in to a socket, so it’s recommended to unplug all devices during a storm or power outage. Once the threat has passed, you can plug everything back in, one device at a time.
Blackout: The term blackout is the same thing as a power outage. These terms are used interchangeably.
Live map of power outages
If you’re looking for an up-to-date map of current power outages, you can look at the PowerOutage.us page.
What to expect during a power outage
It’s normal to feel uncertainty in the midst of an outage. Most of the things we do revolve around power at one level or another, so returning to our normal way of life becomes our primary focus during a blackout. I will address some of the most common questions to put you at ease and help you understand what’s to come.
What are the effects of power outages?
Many things will quit working during a blackout. These are some examples:
- Your appliances - Since appliances only work on electricity, consider getting a generator to power up all the essentials, such as the fridge and your electronic devices.
- Your toilet - You will not be able to flush it.
- Your water heater - Say goodbye to warm showers, and water altogether if you have a tankless water heater.
- Frozen / broken water pipes - If there is no heating or running water in the home, you risk broken water pipes during freezing winter weather.
- Your home’s heating system - I hope you have a wood fire place. If not, bundle up with blankets.
- Your home’s air conditioning system - If you need to cool down on a hot day, check out these 49 tips to beat the summer heat!
- Traffic lights - Traffic lights will flash in red and work like stop signs. This means that traffic is bound to be congested and possibly more dangerous than other times. Travel only when, and if, you need to.
- Credit cards - Machine checkout systems cannot work unless the machine is powered by a backup generator. Keep $200 in small bills and coins to pay in cash if some stores choose to remain open.
- Stores - You can expect many businesses and schools to be closed during an outage, unless of course, they use generators. This includes but is not limited to: the post office, gas stations, grocery stores, the mall, and restaurants.
Who do I call if there’s a power outage in my area?
The first thing you should do is check your breakers and circuit boxes. If the problem doesn’t seem to be related to that, and you can see that the outage is limited to your home or neighborhood, contact your electric company to report the outage.
If the outage is related to a natural disaster, you should look on your electric company’s website and social media pages for updates. Avoid calling them right away because their phone lines will probably be congested. In widespread outages, the company is already aware of the situation and working to restore the power as soon as they can.
How long does a power outage last?
Outages can last as little as a few minutes and as long as several weeks. Many variables could be responsible for causing a power outage- natural disasters and maintenance being two of the most probable reasons. An excessive use of air conditioning during a heat wave, for example, could cause widespread blackouts that can last for several hours. Heavily damaged or downed power lines due to tropical or winter storms can take much longer to repair, thereby extending the time for the power to be restored.
Could we survive a long-term power outage?
Perhaps! I’m confident that most people would be able to survive a few weeks without power. Although we would have to live in less than ideal situations, I think it would be doable if only we set our minds and really prepare to make it so. Regardless of the situations we are faced with, it’s human nature to find a way to work past them no matter how difficult they seem. Being prepared makes it a whole lot easier to overcome them, and that’s why it’s important to be aware of the probability that it can happen to anyone and at any time. Store enough supplies to get you through a blackout for 3 to 14 days minimum.
How do I switch off the power in my house?
To do this, find the circuit breaker box in your home and flip the main breaker to “off”. Why would you want to do this? During storms where your home or basement is at a risk of being flooded, you should shut off the power to prevent an electric shock which could lead to death.
How to mitigate power outages
The key to reducing the effects of power outages lies in you making the decision to prepare for it. These are actions you can take today to prepare for a future blackout.
- Make a family reunification plan. Like many disasters, a power outage may occur during a time when you’re not with your family and getting in touch with loved ones can become difficult if the telephone lines are saturated. You should develop a plan now that will outline the steps each person will take in order to meet in a safe place. Identify different scenarios, review your plans often, and involve your children so they can know how to respond too.
- Make an emergency kit. A bug out and bug in kit will be essential to cover your basic needs while the power is off.
- Make giant ice cubes. Fill up ziplock bags or small Tupperware containers with water and keep them in the freezer. When an outage occurs, it will take longer for these huge ice bags to defrost, thereby helping to extend the shelf-life of your food.
- Determine if your food is safe for consumption. Do not assume that your perishable food is safe to eat after a power outage.
This tip will help you determine whether or not the food in your fridge has defrosted and refroze during an outage. Fill a plastic or paper cup with water almost to the top, and put it in the freezer to allow it to become a huge ice cube. Once it has frozen solid, put a quarter on top of the ice and leave it in the freezer indefinitely. When your power goes out, your food can remain frozen for 24 hours if the door doesn’t get opened often. After the first 24 hours, you can expect things to start melting. The location of the quarter in the cup will give you an indication if your food stayed frozen or not. If you find the quarter lying on top of the ice, it means nothing melted. If you find it at the bottom of the cup or part-way down, that means your food is no longer safe to eat.
- Protect your electronics. Prevent a power surge from damaging your electronic equipment and appliances by unplugging them from the outlets. You can also invest in power surge strips and turn those off. When the power is restored, turn on and plug in the appliances one at a time.
- Turn off your water and drain the pipes (in the winter) to prevent them from freezing.
Power outage safety tips
- Gas up (or charge your car) if you can. When the power goes out, so do the credit card machines, gas stations, and charging stations. Don’t get stuck waiting for hours in line at a gas station because you’re running low when an emergency strikes. Make it a habit to always fill up your gas tank when it reaches the half-way mark and you won’t have to worry about getting stuck on empty. As for electric cars, use your vehicle wisely (or find an alternative way to commute) so you don’t run out of charge in an inconvenient location.
- When the power goes out, take a quick inventory of the perishable food you have in your fridge and freezer. If you leave your freezer doors shut, your food can remain frozen for up to 24 hours (perhaps a little longer if it’s completely full). Eat perishable food items first. If your fridge has reached more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, your food may no longer be safe to eat. If you suspect your food has spoiled, toss it. Do not risk getting food poisoning- it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
- Keep one light switched on in the house. This way you know when the power returns.
- Unplug or turn off all your electronics, except your fridge. When the electricity is restored, there’s a potential for a voltage spike. This surge can damage any electrical equipment that is attached to an outlet. You should never assume that a power strip will be able to protect you from a surge so it’s best to unplug everything until the power returns.
- Park your car outside. Most car garages are electrically powered. Opening a garage door may be difficult for some people, even though it’s something I recommend everyone learn to do anyway. Parking your car outside when outages and other natural disasters are expected will make the process of evacuating faster and less stressful.
- Travel with caution and expect delays. Power outages affect our cities in a vast amount of ways, including the traffic lights, gas pumps, registers, the A/C and heating units. Traffic lights will be working as stop signs, so you should expect bumper-to-bumper traffic in main intersections, and possibly back roads since people will try to avoid the main roads.
- Stockpile water and non-perishable foods at home. During long-term power outages, shopping centers and restaurants may be closed because they cannot operate the cash registers, the lights, etc. The only thing that can keep a store open is if they have a backup generator and choose to use it. You should never rely on that assumption as an option. Make sure to keep a minimum of 14 days’ worth of food and water at home- if possible, store more than that.
- Use a home generator. Using a generator comes with the responsibility that you know how to operate it properly. Make sure to read the manual if you have any doubts. For starters, you should run your generator outside to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and to reduce the risk of a home fire. You should also never connect the generator to your home’s power circuit system, but instead connect appliances directly to it.
- Do not use candles unless you have no other lighting option. Some alternative lighting options that are worth investing in are flashlights (make sure to include several extra sets of batteries!), solar powered lights, and military light sticks.
- Do not open and close your refrigerator/ freezer doors often. Keeping your fridge doors closed will help maintain the food at cooler temperatures. The more you open the door and let warm air in, the faster your food can spoil.
- Do not get near downed power lines and teach your children to stay away from them too. Never touch a hanging or downed wire because there’s no way to tell if there is electricity coming out if it- always assume there is! In such situations, you should immediately call 911 or the utility company to inspect those wires.
- Do not walk into flooded areas. Being in a flood zone puts you at risk of being washed away by the current and getting electrocuted if a downed power line is touching it. Both of those situations could result in death, so avoid them.
Power outage preparedness kit must-haves
- Water: One gallon of water per person per day is essential. You should store enough water to last you a minimum of 3 days, but if possible, much longer. If you can’t do more than 3 days, buy a LifeStraw, iodine tablets or your choice of a water purification and filtration system to maintain a constant supply of potable water.
- Food: Storing a supply of food is also essential. Storing meals that are easy to prepare and ideally require no electricity. We recommend having a supply of freeze-dried emergency food which lasts 20+ years, as well as a stove and fuel kit to cook those meals.
- Battery-powered flashlight: Keep several flashlights in easy-to-reach locations throughout the house. Perhaps one in each room, one in the kitchen, and one by the main entrance or door to your house.
- Hand-cranked or battery-powered radio: A radio is one of the best ways to receive updates on the outage, especially if you don’t have a means to charge your phone.
- First aid kit: A first aid kit is important for treating wounds and preventing illness. Have all your medical supplies in the same place and within easy reach for you (keep it out of the reach of children).
- Bug out kit: Although most power outages don’t require you to evacuate, a bug out kit should ideally contain the necessary supplies to get you through the first 72 hours following an emergency.
- Toilet and sanitation kit: Since the plumbing system will not be working, you must have a back-up bathroom solution to maintain optimal hygiene. Properly disposing of waste should become one of your priorities.
- Cooler / ice chest: If the outage lasts more than 24 hours, the food in your fridge can become spoiled. Extend it’s shelf life a little longer by keeping a cooler near your emergency supplies. Have it ready to transport the food over and fill it with ice as needed.
- Generator: Investing in a generator for your home can save you a lot of money in the long run. You don't need a generator to power all of the appliances of your house, but at least something you can connect your mobile devices to, and if possible your refrigerator.
I understand that I just gave you a lot of information and it can be easily forgotten after the power is restored and life returns to normal. This is why I made a power outage readiness list that you can print out and keep with your bug-out kit. When another power outage occurs, you can remember the important safety tips and which essential supplies are recommended to help you survive the outage.
More resources from our blog
- Can you shower? Can you flush your toilet? Find out how your plumbing system works during a power outage.
- No power? No problem! Find out which hearty meals you can prepare without having to use electricity.
- No electricity means no WiFi..! How can you communicate with others if you can’t charge your phone or connect to social media? Learn some alternative communication methods that don’t require an internet connection or a phone!
- Do you have mobility, hearing, or visual problems? This post highlights some tips and solutions for you.
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8 Common Causes of Outages. Edison International
Average frequency and duration of electric distribution outages vary by states. US Energy Information Administration
Puerto Rico Spent 11 Months Turning the Power Back On. They Finally Got to Her. New York Times
Power Outage Annual Report: Blackout Tracker. United States Annual Report 2017. Eaton
The Often Overlooked Costs of an Extended Power Outage. GenPro
PG&E power outage in California. CNN