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With several storms in the Northeast United States and more storms predicted this week, there have been lots of extended power outages. What are things to do to prepare your house for a power outage especially in the winter.

What are things you should do once you have lost power and once it comes back on?

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What about steps to ensure your pipes don't freeze in your house? –  SchwartzE Jan 31 '11 at 18:26
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I'm in Maine, been there, done that. Gonna retire and move south. –  shirlock homes Jan 31 '11 at 23:58
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13 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

There's a few considerations based on the time of year -- when it's cold enough outside, saving the stuff in your fridge isn't as big a deal, as you can just put it outside (although, you might need to pack it in some critter-proof containers).

Good insulation can help in the colder months; Good tree planting and possibly some awnings on the windows or a good porch can help in the warmer months.

For general preparedness -- I like to keep at least one spare bottle of propane for my grill; one of these years, I'll get a heat proof thermal blanket, as I managed to cook a leather welding apron I tried using last year when cooking in a power outage. (and don't think you can just go and swap out a tank ... when your car's been crushed under a fallen tree branch, and you've got no power for 2 days, it kinda sucks to run out of fuel.

Oh ... and pack your freezer and frige with water bottles. It's thermal mass, and if you have to open a fridge, there's less air in the fridge that gets exchanged with the room temp air. (again, not as bad a problem whem the house is 50 degrees, but it helps during huricane season).

If the power goes off in the winter, and you're going to abandon your house (go to a hotel, or a friend or relative), and it might be days before you come back to check on things, before you leave, you may wish to drain the water in your pipes, so if the house does freeze you won't burst a pipe; then, when the house starts warming back up after the power comes back on, you don't come home to a huge mess.

Oh ... and trim the dead branches from trees, especially those above where you park your car. (I'm not kidding about the crushed car thing when you're iced in with no power for 2 days ... it really sucks ... and looking out and seeing the office park across the street from you with their lights on)

update :

A few more considerations -- look over what sort of systems fail when you loose power, and find suitable alternatives that don't require electricity, and would be useable in storm conditions.

For instances, people with sump pumps might want to consider a backup "water powered" sump pump

For heating, if you have a fireplace you rarely use, it'd be good to clean your chimney over the spring or summer and not in a panic when you're trying to prep for everything else; a chimney cap to keep out birds and leaves will significantly reduce the risk of a fire.

If you've got a generator, you might consider building a suitable location to run it from, away from your house, so you don't risk exhaust coming into the house and CO poisioning.

You might also want to test your emergency systems -- make sure generators start, make sure a squirril hasn't chewn through the gas line to your grill (yep, had that one happen, too), or set up a nest inside your grill (happened to a friend), etc.

Also, you may want to consider re-adjusting the circuits in your house; yes, there are laws against 'suicide cables' to connect a generator to the grid, but if you shut off the mains from your house, you can connect up the generator, and then just turn on the circuits you need on; unfortunately, in my house, the pumps for my radiators are on a different phase than my oil burner; if I had the fridge and heating all on one phase, I could keep it all going with out needing a 220V generator.

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For these with well water, the list is bigger than most. Something that we do is we have about 10 of those big pretzel plastic containers filled with water saved. If something is coming, we usually fill the bathtubs with water as well. Both are not used for eating / drinking / bathing, but to flush the toilets.

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We did the bathtub thing growing up, too ... and we'd fill pots in the kitchen for drinking water. You can also get emergency water storage (55 gallon barrels, and 'boxed water kits' which are cardboard boxes w/ waterproof bags inside), if you have a good place to store them. –  Joe Feb 2 '11 at 18:55
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Make sure you know where your flashlight is (keep it in a single location) and that the batteries are good. I have stubbed my toes (or bruised my knee/shin) many times fumbling around in the dark for the last place my flashlight was put.

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Buy candles, flashlight and batteries. If you have a fireplace buy logs. You could also buy or rent a generator.

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I like candles, but if you have kids, you might have to beware of them; my neighbors kids are literally drawn to 'em like moths to a flame, and they want to play with them. (they only see 'em when the power's out, I think). Personally, I like the candles in jars; they store well, they burn a long time, don't drip, some are cool enough to hold when lit, and if you set one in each sink in the house, they're pretty safe and you don't have to use the bathroom in the dark. –  Joe Feb 1 '11 at 3:10
    
And don't forget the matches for the candles ... as a non-smoker, I rarely use 'em, and when I couldn't find them last week, I had find my lighter, the fuel to fill it, etc. –  Joe Feb 1 '11 at 3:10
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Put your power company's phone number into your cellphone or write it on the refrigerator.

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Actually, good point -- in our area, the power company wants people to call in to report outages ... but if you can't get to the internet to look up the number, and you've composted your phone book, you're SOL; it's also a good idea if you have a land line to keep one non-wireless phone without any special features in the house, so it'll still work without electricity. –  Joe Feb 2 '11 at 18:44
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The preparation seems to be covered fairly well by others, but for the 2nd part of the question, you want to make sure that you're ready for the power to come back on. I used to live in an area with frequent blackouts, and often when the power first came back on it would be a bit unstable, with brownouts and frequent on/off cycles.

Any electronic devices should probably be turned off, and power shut down to them - that doesn't mean turning the power switch off, since many devices will continue to draw power when "off".

If you don't have your computers and electronics on a power bar, you might want to get one - this is an easy way to ensure that everything is safely turned off. Otherwise, label the breaker panel so you can just turn the appropriate breakers off.

Don't forget about the various wall-warts, although if there's no load on them you'll probably be OK.

You'll also want to make sure that heavy-load appliances are off, as well as anything that might cause a problem if the power came back on with nobody around - ovens & stoves, heaters, washers & dryers, etc. I've never had a problem with a fridge, but I suppose that you could unplug it if you were really worried about it. I don't think most major appliances would be damaged by a brief surge or brownout, but if the grid is a bit unstable the less load on it the better.

I generally don't worry too much about lights - you need some way to know when the power comes back on, after all, and bulbs are generally inexpensive - although I don't know how some of the new LED lights (which certainly aren't cheap!) would handle the situation.

For more regional recommendations, check with your local power company to see what they suggest.

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Also, when the power comes back on, there's sometimes a surge to go with it -- it's not a DIY job, but there exist whole-home surge supressors that take up a couple of slots in your circuit breaker panel. –  Joe Feb 1 '11 at 2:44
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Oh ... and I try to leave on a radio, fairly loud -- so when the power does come back on, it'll hopefully wake me up, so I can survey the place to make sure I didn't have something bad happen (like the stove left on) –  Joe Feb 1 '11 at 2:53
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Chemical glow sticks are great for emergency lighting, and have a decent shelf life. One in a central area on each floor of a house can provide enough light to move around without banging into stuff. One just over your shoulder is enough light to read by.

Unlike candles, they are safe around kids, too, and aren't a problem when sleeping.

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One thing I do when the power flickers is to shutoff the HVAC system. Frequent power cycles can be bad for compressors. And while the gas furnace should be fine, I don't want to risk any carbon monoxide poisoning. I'd also do this for my fridge if it was easy for me to access. Just make sure to turn them back on when it looks like power is going to stay on.

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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.

How much water do you really need? Do MREs make you sick? Do you know how use your fireplace? Are the batteries in your flashlight still good? Answer these questions by practicing.

Remember that people used to live in your part of the world without electricity, fossil fuels, and plumbing. You can do it, too.

Your ability to be comfortable in a wide range of weather is something you can develop. Thermostatically-controlled HVAC deprives us of this ability, but if you spend some time outdoors you can get used to it. Then, when the HVAC won't work in a power outage, you can cope.

If water goes out, you can save a ton of water by composting your poop. You only need 5 gallon bucket + a luggable loo seat + a pile of sawdust. See http://humanurehandbook.com/

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Here are a few tips that I haven't seen shared yet...

  • Food: When a storm is approaching you know may cut out power then turn your freezer down to as cold as it will go and the refrigerator down as far as it will go without freezing items. (Test before storms and mark the indicator, so you know the setting. Also mark the 'normal' settings.) Put the items you expect to use first up front. Make a quick 'map' to the location of items. Put tape on the doors (to keep you from opening the doors without thinking). If the power goes out then open the doors as little as possible for as short as possible - and have a plan for what you need before you open the door. This applies to summer and winter. If you only open the doors a few times a day and do it quickly then your foods can stay above spoilage temperatures for a week or more. (And keep a thermometer in the freezer and 'fridge, so you know when you cross that line.)
  • Light: Use candles without a wire in the wick, as wire wicks most often contain lead (this is a good tip any time, but especially when you may be burning them a lot). Use aluminum foil to make a 180 degree reflector. It's amazing how much light they put out - and they don't blow out when you walk. The newer LED lights are nice and will run a long time on a set of batteries, but candles are much more pleasant and in the winter they put off a little heat.
  • Power: Have an inverter. If you have a deep cycle battery then so much the better. The battery can be recharged from your car or just use the car battery (assuming the inverter has a low voltage cutoff, so it won't run down the battery so much you can't start your car). Just be sure to run the car outside. If you have a large enough inverter then you can run your refrigerator. If not then you can still charge your cell phones, computer with your broadband modem, and even run a DVD player and TV for quite a while (invite the neighbors ahead of time, because they will certainly come over anyway thinking that you have power). An inverter will run fans for cooling in the summer and blowing warm fireplace air through the home.
  • Be safe.
  • Be sure to enjoy the company of your family. A power outage is a great time to play board games, cards, and really enjoy some good old fashioned fun.
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Just think about emergency lighting. Do you have to light up the whole house or just what is in front of you. The most versatile and economical solution is to use an LED head light. You can get them at most sporting goods stores. You will look like a couple of miners walking around in the dark, but it is very practical. You will get many hours on a few AAA batteries. Keep a bunch of batteries on hand.

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I make a system without any kind of power you can use like a light.

You just take a transparent one liter bottle, fill the water and add some Clorox (bleach) then put it outside of your house for use in night time.

That is really usable for everyone.

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A gas stove is a thing of beauty when the power goes out. You'll likely need a lighter/match to start it up, and a CO detector to be sure you're safe wo std. ventilation fan, but it'll warm your home somewhat, and let you cook. Add a marine battery w invertor for minor electrical needs, and you're good to go for a few days.

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