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 utility 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 the electrical system 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 and severe storms with strong winds.
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, the power company PG&E intentionally cut off electricity 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 power companies schedule 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 into a socket, so it’s recommended to unplug all electronic equipment and 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
Power outages are scary and can become dangerous, especially when they occur during a heat wave or winter storm.
To put your mind at ease, we gathered a list of the most common power outage questions and answered them for you here.
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 power grid failure in the future.
- Make contingency plans. Like many disasters, a power outage may occur during a time when you’re not with your family members. Getting in touch with loved ones can become difficult if the telephone lines are saturated, particularly cell phone towers.
The first thing to do is in your safety preparedness plan is to outline the steps each person will take in order to reunite in a safe place. Identify primary hazards, create an evacuation plan, and make necessary arrangements with relatives or friends.
Update and rehearse your plans a few times each year and involve your children in the process so they learn the emergency plan 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. Near the end of this article, we highlight some must-have items that may be necessary in the event of a power outage, such as non-perishable food, a portable generator, ice chests, and hand-crank radio.
Your emergency kit should also include a documents folder with copies of the birth certificates of your immediate family members, a phone number list to get in touch with, and copies of your insurance policies.
- Make giant ice cubes. Fill up ziplock bags or small Tupperware containers with tap water and keep them in the freezer. When an outage occurs, it will take longer for these large ice bags to defrost, thereby helping to maintain your fridge cool and hopefully extending the shelf-life of your food.
- Determine if your food is safe for consumption. Food safety is an important thing, especially during emergencies. Do not assume that your perishable food is safe to eat after a power outage. A food thermometer can be helpful in determining the temperature of the food at any given time.
If you need to evacuate, this tip will help you determine whether or not the food in your fridge has defrosted and refrozen after an outage. Fill a plastic or paper cup with water almost to the top, and put it in the freezer so that it becomes one big ice cube. Once it has frozen solid, put a metal coin (a penny, nickel, or quarter) on top of the ice and leave it in the freezer indefinitely.
When the power goes out, your food can remain frozen for 24 hours if the door remains closed. 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.
Also, if there's an unusual odor in your fridge or freezer, it would probably be wise to assume that the food has spoiled.
- Protect your electronics. Prevent a power surge from damaging your electronics, medical equipment, and appliances by unplugging them from the outlets. You can also use surge protectors and turn them off. When the power is restored, turn the power surge strips back 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. Broken pipes can result in water damage and flooding regardless of the level of your home.
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 halfway 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 people have an automatic garage door, which is powered by an electric garage door opener. Manually 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 three-day supply of food and water at home (minimum)- if possible, however, store enough for 14 days or more.
- 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 electrical 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 defrost. A full freezer can defrost in as little as 24 hours. A half-full freezer can defrost much faster than that.
- 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 of it- always assume there is! In such situations, you should immediately call 911 or the electric 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 it's important to be aware of your surroundings in order to 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.
- Nonperishable food: Storing a three-day supply of food is essential. Storing meals that are easy to prepare and ideally require no electricity. We recommend having a supply of freeze-dried emergency food that lasts 20+ years. Store it in an accessible place. If you're storing canned goods, it would be a good idea to keep a couple of manual can openers with it.
- A means of cooking: A hot drink or meal can make a big difference during a long-term power outage. A stove and fuel kit is an ideal solution for cooking emergency meals, however, camp stoves, charcoal grills, a natural gas stove, or a gas grill can also be good alternatives. Note that some of the mentioned cooking options may become fire hazards if used improperly or indoors.
- 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. Remember to also store extra batteries and a battery backup.
- Hand-cranked or battery-powered radio: A radio is one of the best ways to receive updates on the outage and news reports, especially if you don’t have the means to charge your phone. Set aside an additional pack of fresh batteries for your radio.
- First aid kit: A first aid kit is important for attending to medical needs, treating wounds, and preventing illness. Have all your medical devices and supplies in the same place and within easy reach for you (keep them 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 backup 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 its 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 the major appliances of your house, but at least something you can connect mobile devices to, and if possible, the refrigerator. Some home generators come with a power station where you can plug in a mobile device and/or save any additional electricity that it produces on an external battery which can later be used as a portable charger.
- Entertainment: Electronic devices will not be able to serve as our primary method of entertainment during an extended power outage, especially if you don't have the means to keep them charged. Therefore, store a few books and board games to keep you and your family busy.
Print the power outage supplies checklist and safety tips below. Keep this information in your emergency kit so it's handy when you need it the most.
More resources from our blog
- Can you shower? Can you flush your toilet? Find out how your plumbing system works during a power outage.
- Are you hungry but there's 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.
- Stuck in a winter power outage? Learn how to mitigate extreme cold weather here.
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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