What You Really Need to Survive a Blackout

What You Really Need to Survive a Blackout
Photo: Antonio Guillem, Shutterstock

When you’re a kid, blackouts are exciting — they instantly transform your boring old house into a dark world of infinite adventure. When you’re an adult, blackouts are anxiety nightmares, forcing you to consider how long your food will stay fresh and ask yourself why you let your phone battery drop to 23 per cent before the lights went out.

Chances are pretty good you’ll have to deal with at least one extended blackout annually, according to the government. And while the average blackout lasts just a few hours, natural disasters have resulted in power outages that have lasted up to a week in some areas — and sometimes much longer. Our national electrical grid is pretty delicate in a lot of ways, so you’d be well-advised to prepare for a lengthy loss of power.

Everyone knows the basics — have some flashlights, fresh batteries, and candles on hand. Many of us go the extra mile and invest in a power bank for our phones, a portable generator, and a few other things that can help. But to be truly prepared to live without grid power for an extended period of time, there are other things most people don’t think of that can make a world of difference. Having just a few of these items in your house could turn your next blackout from a nightmare into merely an inconvenience.

A whole house battery or generator

Many people have a gas-powered generator in their garage or basement, and these can be incredibly useful when disaster strikes. But generators have a lot of disadvantages. For one, you need to keep fuel on hand, and gasoline degrades and propane tanks leak, so ensuring you’ve got a supply ready to go is a pain. Traditional generators can be bulky and difficult to start as well — nothing makes you feel like a failed adult like pulling on a starter cord and getting a soft wheeze as a reward. Plus, generators can only be safely run outside, which means you might be dragging it out into the rain or snow and running a mass of extension cords into the house.

A whole-house solution is expensive — but so very worth it. Emergency generators that run off natural gas or propane can be installed outside the home and kick in automatically if the grid power goes off — often seamlessly. Similarly, a whole-house battery system like Tesla’s Powerwall kicks in when the power goes off and can be charged up from the grid or via solar panels. If you want to lord it over your neighbours and strut around your warm, well-lit house while they are bathed in frigid darkness, this is your chance.

A water-powered pump

Power outages can happen any time — but they occur most often during a weather event. Which means just as your basement or crawlspace begins to fill with flood water, the power goes out, transforming your sump pump into a large sculpture entitled Futility. You can have some utility pumps and a backup power source on hand, of course, but a better option is a water-powered pump.

These pumps hook up to your municipal water supply and use water pressure as a power source. Typically, for every gallon of water they use to run, they pump out two gallons. As long as there’s water pressure, your pump will operate to remove water from your home. Your water bill might be high, but that’s better than calling a flood remediation service and a general contractor to recover from water damage.

A car generator

If an emergency backup generator or whole-house battery is beyond your budget, you can still improve on the old-school gas generator with a car generator. These devices transform your car — whether it’s gas, diesel, or electric — into a backup generator for your home. They last a long time (50-70 hours on a full tank of gas) and produce a lot of power — they’re capable of running your furnace and large appliances for days.

A hefty power bank

Generators can be expensive, bulky, dirty, and difficult to use. And if you do have one, you might want to reserve it for larger appliances or other crucial home infrastructure. That makes having a power bank an essential tool for blackouts. These portable batteries can be charged via a solar panel or wall outlet, and stand ready to provide plenty of power to charge phones and devices and power lamps and small appliances, often for days. Best of all, they can be operated indoors without worrying about fumes or fire.

Portable solar panels

Solar power is growing in popularity and utility, and a portable home solar panel is an inexpensive hedge against a blackout. A portable panel can be stored away (many of them fold up) out of sight until needed. Once the sun comes up, you can deploy your panel to charge up devices, power banks, or to directly power small appliances (depending on how much juice your panel is capable of providing). The longer a blackout goes on — and the lower your batteries and power banks get — the more useful this thing will be.

Emergency lights

There’s a reason we call power outages “blackouts” — things get dark. A power outage is a forcible reminder of how reliant we are on electricity in our modern lives, as a loss of power instantly transforms your home into a maze. You will be amazed to discover all the walls and sharp corners that magically appear when you’re fumbling around trying desperately to remember where you stowed your flashlights.

Luckily, science has given you some easy solutions. First, install some light bulbs with built-in battery backups. When the power goes out, your lights will stay on for a few hours — plenty of time to get organised. And if you slept on this extremely simple blackout tool, you might have some solar lights in your backyard — bring them inside and set them up in the windows (stick ‘em in jars so they stand up). They will at least provide some illumination and will charge up during the day.

Self-heating meals

The food in your fridge will stay fresh for a few hours if you don’t open the door, and the frozen stuff can be good for a day or two. And if you have natural gas in your kitchen, you can still cook in a blackout. But if the power outage lasts more than a day or two, food is going to be a bit of an issue. Sure, you might have an oil drum filled with cheese puffs in your garage (who doesn’t?) but a hot meal is always best. Having a few self-heating meals like the ones from Omeal is an easy way to make yourself a little safer and more comfortable during a blackout. They come in a variety of flavours, and they’re easy to prepare — you just activate the heating element with some liquid (water is best, but any liquid will do) and the pre-cooked meal heats up in a few minutes.

Portable propane heater

When blackouts occur during winter snowstorms, not only are you trapped in the dark, you also have to deal with a rapidly cooling house. Having a few portable propane heaters and one-pound propane tanks on hand can help you keep your home warm until your furnace can fire again. Propane heaters can safely be used indoors (just follow instructions in terms of venting, which usually means cracking a window at the top sash) and can heat small spaces very effectively.

A UPS and a crank radio

The Internet has become essential to everyday life — and crucial in emergencies. But your modem and router both run on electricity, so when the power goes out you’re left with your phone’s data — and in emergencies, those networks are often overwhelmed. Using an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) — basically a power strip with a built-in battery — will keep your modem and router running for hours when the power goes out, and longer if you unplug when not using the Internet.

But you should also have a hand-crank radio on hand. The internet is wondrous, but if a blackout goes on for days chances are your UPS will run out, and eventually your internet service provider’s local equipment may shut down as well. Getting information over the radio may seem like a primitive move, but when the phone networks are jammed and the internet’s out, you’ll be glad to have it.

Hot water bottle

Dirt cheap and so old-school many folks don’t even know they exist, the classic hot water bottle is perfect for blackouts. Your heat may be off, but your water heater may still be working — and the water in it will stay hot for a long time, even if it isn’t firing. And if you have a gas stove or other way of heating water, you’re golden. A couple of hot water bottles will heat up a bed or sleeping bag nicely and can be the difference between a good night’s sleep and shivering in misery. If the basic ones seem a little…basic, upgrade to a fleece-covered model for extra comfort during your time of darkness.

Blackouts are disruptive — but you have some control over how disruptive they are. A few of these tools will make all the difference.

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