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How to Prepare for a Power Outage & What to Do to Survive Without Electricity

Can you imagine being without electricity for weeks? Most of us probably can’t. But many people faced this scenario in late December of 2013, when a crippling ice storm swept through the United States and Canada, leaving over one million people without power. While power was restored within days for many people, in other areas it took weeks to get the lines repaired and the power back on.

Are you and your family prepared to go through an emergency like this? Do you have a way to heat your home and feed your family if your entire region lost electricity for weeks? For most people, the answer is “no,” which is why preparing for a long-term power outage is a good idea.

Getting ready for a long-term power outage involves similar steps as other disaster planning, be it organizing a 72-hour emergency kit for your family, preparing for a natural disaster, or getting ready for a winter storm. However, there are a few extra steps you need to take. Let’s look at the ins and outs of preparing for a long-term power outage, and how you can save money getting ready.

How Likely Is a Long-Term Outage?

It’s easy to assume that a long-term power outage is unlikely in the United States. After all, no one wants to think about the chaos that would ensue if the lights were out for a week or two or even longer. But the reality is that our power grid is a lot more fragile than it seems. The grid faces regular threats from common storms and natural disasters, which, in some areas, can take weeks to fix.

There is also the growing threat of power outages due to cyberattacks and acts of terrorism. The U.S. Energy Department’s Quadrennial Energy Review states that our power grid is in “imminent danger” of cyberattack. According to CBS, some experts theorize that Russia, which has been attacking Ukraine’s power grid for years, is actually using those attacks as “test runs” for a larger attack on the United States’ power grid. Another article, also published by CBS, reports that some U.S. electric utilities have weaker security controls than those in the Ukraine.

Harvard Business Review interviewed Lawrence Susskind, a professor in MIT’s urban systems department, who said, “Millions…could be left with no electricity, no water, no public transportation, and no waste disposal for weeks (or even months)… No one can protect critical urban infrastructure on their own. Nobody, though, is showing any leadership.”

Yes, it’s scary and a bit overwhelming to imagine what might happen if the lights went out for a long stretch of time. But, there is plenty that you can do to prepare so that if the worst does happen, you and your family will weather the storm and come through just fine.

electric power pole destroyed by hurricane

How to Prepare for a Long-Term Outage

Preparing for a power outage involves looking at several different areas.

Water

Your family needs at least one gallon of water per person, per day, to function during an emergency. You’ll also need extra water for pets, cooking, and hygiene. If you’re preparing for a two-week emergency, that comes to 56-112 gallons or more of water. Many people don’t have the space to store that much water, and at $1 per gallon, on average, that’s a big investment.

It’s smart to have a least a week’s worth of water on hand. However, you can look at other ways to get water during an emergency. For example, is there a lake, river, or stream nearby that you could use as a water source? Could you collect rain from the roof? You might also want to look at ways to purify water during an emergency, especially if you’ll be sourcing it from nature. Water purification tablets, bleach, and heat are all economical ways to purify water. You can also purchase a water purifier, such as the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter.

Food

If the power goes out for an extended period of time, store shelves will be emptied within hours and they might not be restocked for a while. This is why having a long-term food pantry is so important. If you already have plenty of food tucked away, you can avoid some of the inevitable stress that accompanies a power outage. So, what kinds of foods should you have on hand? Focus on storing shelf-stable food that your family already eats. Some good options include:

  • Peanut butter
  • Crackers
  • Powdered milk
  • Pasta
  • Canned vegetables, especially canned beans
  • Oatmeal
  • Rice
  • Beef or chicken bouillon
  • Cereal
  • Dried fruit
  • Granola bars
  • Fruit juice
  • Instant coffee and tea
  • Comfort foods, such as cookies and chocolate
  • Manual can opener

happy mother and her little girl buying tinned goods

You can find a full list of foods that work well for an emergency food supply at Ready.gov.

Preparing a food pantry can get expensive, especially if you decide to store a one-month supply of meals. However, there are plenty of ways to save on groceries as you’re stocking up. First, purchase foods for your emergency pantry as they go on sale. Stock up slowly; focus first on building a three-day supply of meals, then work your way up. You can also use strategies like extreme couponing to save even more.

Although you can save quite a bit by shopping at discount grocery stores, pay careful attention to expiration dates. Often, discount grocery stores will stock and sell food that is about to expire. While this is fine if you’re going to eat the food right away, keep in mind that you’re shopping for food that will be stored for months or years. You’ll want to purchase shelf-stable foods that will stay good for a long time.

Refrigerator and Freezer: What Is Safe?
When the power goes out, your refrigerator and freezer will only stay cold for so long. According to the American Red Cross, an unopened refrigerator will keep food cold for four hours. After this, temperatures will begin to rise to unsafe levels. A full, unopened freezer will keep food frozen for 48 hours; a half-full freezer will stay frozen for 24 hours.

During an outage, it’s helpful to have a food thermometer on hand. You can use it to see which foods are safe to eat by checking the temperature of the refrigerator. Throw out any food that has been exposed to 40-degree temperatures for two hours or more.

You can extend the cooling life of your refrigerator by preparing beforehand. Keep one or two gallons of water in the freezer; not only will this make your freezer more efficient when the power is on, but when it goes off, you can transfer these frozen jugs to the refrigerator to keep food cold longer. If you have a large cooler, you can cool foods even more efficiently by transferring them to the cooler. Use ice or your frozen water jugs to keep the food cold.

Cooking

Once you have an emergency food supply put away, consider how you’re going to cook when you don’t have power. It’s smart to have a balance between food that’s ready to eat and food that needs to be cooked. Hot meals can do wonders to raise spirits during an emergency, but it’s going to be more difficult to heat and cook food, not to mention procure safe water for cooking and washing.

If your home has a fireplace, fire pit, or wood stove, you already have an easy way to cook hot meals for your family. Make sure you keep an emergency supply of firewood and kindling on hand so that you can quickly light a fire if the lights go out. Store as much as you can so you’re prepared for a long-term outage.

Another option is to invest in a solar oven. Solar ovens harness the power of the sun’s ultraviolet rays to cook food just like a Crock-Pot, and they’re a great addition to your family’s preparedness plan. Costs for a solar oven range from $99 to $250 or more.

Small propane stoves are easy to tuck into a closet for emergency food preparation. The benefits of propane stoves are that they’re relatively inexpensive (starting at around $25 for a two-burner stove) and easy to use. However, you will need to stock up on fuel as well. If you have a larger gas or charcoal grill, make sure you have an extra container of propane or several bags of charcoal put away for emergency situations.

lamb meat

Heating

If a long-term power outage occurs in the winter, you’re going to need supplies to stay warm. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or wood stove then you’re a step ahead, as long as you have plenty of firewood on hand. A portable kerosene heater is another option. While these can be expensive ($100 and up), you can save by purchasing them used on eBay or at garage sales or thrift stores.

Make sure you have a sleeping bag for every member of your family. Sleeping bags, especially those rated at 20 degrees or colder, are incredibly effective at trapping body heat. Smaller children can sleep with adults to stay warm. You can also purchase a space blanket. Space blankets were designed by NASA, and they help retain almost all of your body heat. They’re inexpensive (around $4.50 each on Amazon) and very compact. You should also keep some in your car for emergencies that occur when you’re away from home.

Make sure you have a warm wool or fleece hat for everyone in your family and enough blankets to make a bed for everyone on the floor (which will help keep everyone warm). You’ll also stay warm with hand and feet warmers. These are best purchased during warmer months when they are often on sale.

Health and Wellness

A long-term power outage means you likely won’t have access to the medicines you and your family might need to stay healthy. One way to prepare for this, and cut costs, is to learn to rely on natural remedies to keep your family healthy. For example, elderberry syrup is an incredibly effective immune booster and can help you and your kids recover from illness faster. You can purchase elderberries inexpensively online and make your own elderberry syrup to have on hand.

If possible, have extra medications on hand for a long-term outage. Many insurance companies only cover medications on a month-to-month basis, so for prescription medications, this might be difficult to do. You also need a comprehensive first aid kit. You can buy prepackaged kits online, but it’s more economical to assemble one yourself.

Sanitation

City sewer systems depend on electricity to function. While most have backup generators, those generators are dependent on fuel, which, in a long-term outage, might run out within a few days. This is why you need to have a plan in place to address your family’s sanitation needs.

The average person produces one ounce of feces for every 12 pounds of body weight, which means a 160-pound person will produce around one pound of feces daily. If you do the math for everyone in your family, you can see how quickly sanitation can become a serious issue. Not only is it completely dispiriting to have no way to dispose of waste, it is also a serious health hazard. The good news is that with a little preparedness, you can efficiently and safely deal with waste.

Septic Systems
If you’re on a septic system, you’ll still be able to flush your toilet if you have water to put in the tank. Simply pour water into the toilet tank until it touches the float and then flush. Or, you can pour water quickly and forcefully into the bowl itself, which causes the water to siphon and flush on its own.

However, if your area has experienced a great deal of rain or flooding, it’s not a good idea to use your septic system. If the water table is too high, your septic will not work and waste will quickly spill out into your yard, causing a serious health hazard. If you have a yard, you can also dispose of waste by digging holes in the ground that are six to eight inches deep. Make sure each hole is at least 200 feet from any water source, and try to dig holes in sunny spots; the sun will aid decomposition.

Municipal Systems
If you’re on a municipal system, the toilets will not work if the main sewer is out of power. If you’re sure the main sewer system is down, do not flush your toilet. Everyone in your neighborhood will be flushing, and without power to keep this waste moving, the lines will quickly become blocked and start to back up into people’s homes. Instead, you’ll need to rely on a temporary toilet.

Make a Temporary Toilet
To make a temporary toilet, you’ll need the following supplies:

  • At least two five-gallon buckets with lids
  • Several boxes of heavy-duty black garbage bags; the best are contractor garbage bags, sold at most home improvement stores
  • Duct tape
  • Wood ash, kitty litter, sawdust, quicklime, or portable toilet chemical decomposers (like the kind used in RVs)
  • Twist ties
  • Several gallons of household bleach
  • Several boxes of rubber gloves

The easiest way to make a temporary toilet is to use your existing toilet. Take as much water out of the bowl as possible and then line the bowl with two heavy-duty black garbage bags. Tape the garbage bags to the bowl, under the seat.

After each use, pour in a cup of your disinfectant (the wood ash, kitty litter, etc.) and then spray with bleach. When the bag is half- to two-thirds full, spray again with bleach and remove it, making sure to wear rubber gloves. Seal the bag, put the waste in the five-gallon bucket, and put on the lid. You can then dispose of the waste when services are restored or you’re able to find an appropriate site. If you have the space, you can also consider buying a portable toilet.

Bathing and Cleaning

Bathing is going to be another issue when the water stops flowing. While we don’t need to shower every day, we do need to keep clean. This goes for our homes as well: Keeping plates and cooking equipment clean lowers the spread of germs, disease, and illness. This is why it’s important to have the following supplies on hand:

ordinary european family buying shampoo

  • Baby wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Dry shampoo
  • Disposable utensils
  • Disinfectant cleanser, such as bleach or Lysol
  • Paper towels
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Diapers

Stock up on these items as they go on sale, or use coupons to save.

Lighting and Communication

You also need to look at how you’re going to illuminate your home when the lights go out. Candles are an inexpensive choice, but keep in mind that they can be dangerous, especially if you have children in the house. Some better lighting options include:

  • Flashlights
  • Headlamps
  • LED or solar-powered lanterns

If you have outdoor solar lights in your yard, remember that you can move these indoors at night to light up hallways or bathrooms. Just remember to put them back outside to recharge during the day. You’ll also want to have a hand- or solar-powered radio to get news, provided local stations are able to broadcast.

decorative small solar garden light lanterns

Final Word

It’s not pleasant to think about living without power for days or weeks at a time. However, the reality is that we’re completely dependent on living with electricity, and our grid is vulnerable. Doing what you can to prepare now will give you peace of mind and help ensure that you and your family get through such an emergency, should it ever happen.

Do you have any emergency supplies put away for a long-term power outage? How else have you prepared your family to get through an emergency?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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