Bad weather is unpleasant at the best of times, but it’s a lot worse when a storm knocks your power out. But with some preparation and the right tech, a power outage won’t send your home back to the stone age.
The average US household experienced eight hours of power interruptions in 2020, according to a 2021 report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Although most outages last a few hours and require only basic preparation, the potential for an extended outage is always there. The 2021 EIA report stated that 14 hurricanes and 11 major storms hit the US in 2020—all of which had the potential to leave a large area without power for several days.
As with all preparation, in ideal circumstances, you’ll never need to use any of the things you’ve bought. But if things do go wrong, your prep work can be the difference between a few days of minor inconvenience and hours of total and utter misery.
Everything listed in this article might be sitting in your garage, but dead batteries are useless, and generators won’t work without fuel. The key to thriving during a power outage is knowing when one might occur and checking all of your equipment is in working order.
Your local government may send an emergency alert to your phone when a severe storm is on its way, but this doesn’t occur in every area. The best thing you can do is keep an eye on the weather reports and download an app that provides an extended forecast and alerts when severe weather is close.
If a storm is on its way, put your devices and battery banks on charge as soon as possible. Larger batteries can take hours or even days to fully charge—so they should be charged before storage and checked every month.
Standard battery banks can range from 5,000 milliamp-hours (mAh) to 20,000 mAh. They’re cheap and useful in everyday life, so owning a few is a smart idea anyway. A 20,000 mAh battery bank will fully charge a smartphone around four times, so one per person could keep a household connected for a few days. Solar-powered battery banks are also available and could theoretically keep your smaller devices going forever—though they do take a long time to charge.
An uninterruptable power supply (UPS) is an excellent option if you want to keep something like a modem and router powered during a brief outage. A UPS is basically a large battery that plugs in between a device and the wall. Because it is constantly plugged in, its batteries will be at full charge until they are needed. If the UPS senses a power cut, the mains supply is replaced with the energy it has stored.
Portable Powerstations are the next step up. These will power things like TVs, computers, and even small appliances. Powerstations don’t emit harmful gases—so they are far safer than generators and can be used indoors. On the downside, they are expensive and take a while to charge. Despite “portable” being part of their name, they also weigh a lot. So non-emergency use is more limited.
A good generator will set you back around $500 to $1000, plus fuel expenses. The diesel or gas most generators run on tends to be taxed differently from the stuff people put in vehicles.
Fuel also expires, so ensure your emergency fuel is stored correctly, used, and replaced every six to 12 months. Using expired fuel will be far less efficient, and the impurities it develops will damage whatever you’re using it in.
So what do you get for the money? A portable generator can power large appliances for as long as you have a fuel supply. If you’re capable of going out and getting more fuel, a generator will keep your essential appliances going and your electronic devices powered for as long as you need. If you’re opting for a fossil fuel-powered generator, it may be worth opting for an “inverter generator” which matches the engine’s output to power demands. An inverter generator will use less fuel than a standard generator, which operates at maximum capacity all of the time.
Fossil fuel-powered generators do come with safety issues. The fuel they burn produces several toxic gases, including carbon monoxide. If you’re running a generator, make sure you set it up outdoors with a cable carrying the power inside. Running a generator inside your house can and will kill you.
Solar generators have no harmful emissions but can be around five times the price of a good diesel generator. They also suffer from the same limitations as other solar devices—meaning weather and shorter winter days will drop their power output dramatically. The fact their “fuel” is free will offset some of the cost, though $2000 will get you a lot of diesel.
When your power goes out, your first concern might be related to what happens to the food in your freezer. The good news is a modern freezer can keep food fresh for up to 48 hours without power. It will take an extremely bad power outage in a remote area for your freezer to become a concern. If it looks like you’re power will be out for more than 48 hours, you can still conserve energy by not hooking your freezer up to a generator for the first two days. If hooking your fridge up to a generator isn’t an option, a cooler packed with ice is your best plan B.
Boiling water requires a lot of energy, so it may be worth doing outside on a camping stove. If you have a vacuum flask, you can keep water hot for up to 24-hours. So consider boiling some as part of your preparations and filling a Thermos.
If you’re in a situation where you have to cook, a portable powerstation has enough juice to power a hot plate. A portable powerstation can also power small appliances like a sandwich toaster or waffle iron. A power outage seems like a great time to fire up the BBQ, assuming the weather has died down.
Space heaters draw lots of power, so a lower energy option like an electric blanket might keep you warm longer. If energy is scarce, a few extra layers of clothing won’t sap your supply and should keep you going until the power comes back.
LED lights have made emergency lighting simple. They don’t draw a lot of power, emit a lot of light, and will either run off an internal battery that you can charge or the kind of disposable batteries you can buy from most stores. Buy a couple, along with a few flashlights, make sure they’re charged and working (or make sure you have plenty of batteries in the drawee) and leave them somewhere accessible. If you’re caught in the dark, your phone’s light will be enough to get you to a better light source.
Adequate lighting keeps you safe; many accidents happen in the dark. It’s good for mental health, as spending several long nights in the dark is a daunting prospect for most people. And it can provide entertainment—or more accurately, you can’t read a book, draw, or construct a model in pitch-black darkness.
An emergency radio is a good option to consider. Alongside its ability to keep you updated, some of the better emergency radios have a light or two, along with the ability to function as a backup battery. The radios can also include a charging crank, meaning you can keep it charged if all other energy sources have failed.
Your house’s power supply and fiber internet connection are two separate things, so your fiber broadband connection could still work if you can power your modem and router. As mentioned earlier, a UPS will keep something like a modem going for a while, and a portable powerstation or generator will also provide enough charge to keep your regular internet connection up.
If you haven’t got a UPS, or the storm somehow disables your broadband connection too, a standard modem is not your only option. Your best backup is your phone. Your phone’s internet is very unlikely to go out unless multiple cell towers in the area are damaged. You can use it directly or turn your phone into a personal hotspot and allow other devices to share the connection.
Dedicated Wi-Fi hotspots are also available and are useful for people who travel regularly. These work similarly to your phone’s Wi-Fi and should be fine during a power outage, provided the unit retains some charge. A dedicated Wi-Fi hotspot will also last longer than the power-intensive personal hotspot option your phone has. So you’ll retain a lot of charge on one of your most important devices if you move Wi-Fi duties to something else.
Portable dedicated Wi-Fi hotspots tend to be expensive and become less relevant as free Wi-Fi becomes common in more places. As a result, they may not be the best option for everyone.
This is the part that involves maths. Portable generators are the most powerful thing I’ve mentioned and will last indefinitely, but even one of those can’t power an entire house. You need to know both the power output and capacity of the things you have, and ration that power as appropriate.
Get an estimate of how long the outage will last from the power company and plan from there. Estimates can be incorrect, so check in with your power supplier regularly until things are back up and running. From there, work out how much energy you have stored, how much you can produce, and how you should use it. You can Google how many Watts of energy an appliance will use per hour, do that for what you want to plug in, and divide it by what you have stored.
If your power will be out for three days, and your portable power station will keep the fridge going for an extra 24 hours, that may be more of a priority than plugging in an 80″ TV and running a Keurig every 30 minutes.