By Jerry Ward
Electricity is a wonderful thing! It can be used to provide light, cook food, heat our homes, power vehicles, pump and purify water, and even entertain us. It's safe to say that electrical power is one of the most important driving forces of modern life. It is supplied to our homes and places of business via a very intricate and somewhat fickle power grid.
What happens when that grid goes down? We've all experienced a power outage at one time or another in our lives. Most are short-term events lasting mere hours, but some outages can last days or weeks. With a little knowledge and a few basic items, a loss of electric service can be nothing more than a minor bump in the road of life. Let's take a brief look at a few ways to overcome the lack of electricity in our homes. View our Blackout Checklist.
When the power goes out, the heat pump and electric furnace no longer produce that life-sustaining warmth. Those of us who heat with wood are in the clear, but others need to plan for an alternate heat source in the home. There are several emergency heaters available that use a variety of fuel sources. I've seen propane, kerosene, white gas, and natural gas units designed to be used as short-term solutions for a lack of heat in the home.
Just be sure whatever appliance you select is rated for indoor use and does not emit carbon monoxide as a byproduct of combustion. It is also a good idea to have a few sleeping bags and wool blankets on hand to fight off the chill of a cold night.
When the power goes off, the lights go out! Sounds simple enough, but it gets downright dark at night. If you live in or near town, the neighborhood looks quite eerie without the ever-present streetlights and commercial signage casting their glow on the horizon. To help you see, and to help your state of mind, keep a multitude of alternative light sources on hand. My family has an assortment of flashlights, oil lamps, and candles scattered throughout the home. We also make sure we have spare batteries and liquid fuel on hand to replenish as needed. There are also hand-cranked lights available.
As far as flashlights are concerned, I recommend opting for the brighter and more energy-conscious LEDs. A word of caution - do not use white gas fueled lanterns indoors as they produce the silent killer carbon monoxide.
If your home is on a well, your water supply runs on electricity. No juice equals no operational pump. Plan an alternate way to provide water to the family with either a hand pump or separate emergency electrical supply to ensure adequate supply. I advise having a supply of fresh drinking water storage in the home as well.
Those homes equipped with an electric range will be out of luck when it comes to preparing meals. Other ways of cooking food without electricity include the woodstove, backyard grill, camp stove, reflector oven, and solar oven. Keep some no-cook foods in the pantry to help preserve fuel and speed up prep times. Again, do not use any cooking method inside the house that produces carbon monoxide.
Personal hygiene and sanitation issues can become difficult during a power outage. The lack of electric water heaters may keep folks from bathing or washing dishes as often as they should. An easy solution is to purchase a large three-to-five gallon metal washtub for heating water over an open fire, the woodstove, or backyard grill so you can do the chores that require hot water.
There are also solar showers on the market today that require nothing more than a good sunny day to provide comfortably warm water. If the property is on a well, the toilets may not flush either, which can lead to the spread of disease and filth. Rather than let it build up, pour water directly into the toilet bowl in order to flush waste. Another option is to create a temporary latrine facility outdoors and away from the house and well.
The ability to produce your own electrical power is a comforting feeling in the midst of an outage. Power generators using a variety of fuel sources are available in a wide array of sizes and output ratings. Set-ups range from simply running a drop cord inside the home to intricate, whole-house systems that turn on automatically upon detecting a loss of grid power.
Whatever option you choose, make sure you do it safely! Never operate a generator indoors due to the fire hazard and threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. Always consult a certified electrician if you plan on running the unit through your electrical box. This is for your safety, as well as the safety of the workers down the line fixing the problem.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Don't wait until a real outage to discover holes in your system. Prepare and practice now, when there is still time to get it right. I recommend a monthly drill that simulates a break in the electric grid. Simply go to the electric panel and flip off the main breaker. Then “survive” for a 24-hour period using all the systems and plans you've made. This mock outage will expose the weaknesses in your family’s plan and help you iron out the rough spots. With a little preplanning, training, and a few specialized items, anyone can make it through a loss of electric power with little trouble.
Jerry Ward is the owner and chief instructor at Ozark Mountain Preparedness. He has extensive survival experience and has taught survival for 10 years to a wide range of clients, including U.S. and foreign military personnel. He is also an author, trapper, and certified Wilderness First Responder who has worked as a gunsmith, rock climbing guide, wildland fighter, and member of various Search And Rescue teams.