Get Ready for the Next Power Outage


Power Outage Alert

“Open Immediately — Power Outage Alert”

This arrived in my mail box yesterday.

The letter, from our local utility, tells me that power will be out all day Thursday while they are “performing maintenance . . . to ensure our grid is modern, reliable and up-to-date.”

Probably a good idea – power was out for several hours a month ago, and again in the middle of the night just two weeks ago.

These outages have generated a few calls and some questions from our neighbors! (They think we have all the answers.)

So I updated my research and decided there was enough there to warrant another Advisory!

Check to see how well YOU will do at answering these questions!

What causes power outages?

(Quick, see if you can name at least 10 causes!)

Just watch the news any night and you’ll be supplied with some answers to this question! In the category of unexpected occurrences, cars hit power poles, animals crawl into electrical circuit boxes (most common problem-maker — squirrels), trees fall onto lines, and flooding takes out whole substations.

In the anticipated-so-not-entirely-unexpected category, on April 20 of 2017 a geomagnetic storm rolled in and disrupted power in places all across the country, from San Francisco and Los Angeles to New York. Want more on this topic? Check out this article and current readings of the Planetary K-Index from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Of course, not one of these accidents is why OUR power is going off next week. Rather, our outage is for routine maintenance. I found out that our utility planned for 35,000 scheduled maintenance outages in 2017!

That’s understandable. When repairs are needed, components have to be replaced or upgrades are required – like integrating new solar or wind into the grid — the system has to be shut down for safety.

A major outage is one usually caused by a storm or other natural disaster, like the 2017 hurricanes and the massive 2017 California wildfires. Major outages are so disruptive that outage statistics are actually kept in two categories: with and without major events!

Utilities have come under some criticism for not being better prepared for major outages. In fact, in California, where power lines have sparked fires, utilities have been sued for negligence in not maintaining the lines and equipment properly.

Finally, here in California we’re familiar with a fourth type of outage, the rotating outage. In situations where the grid is unable to supply the amount of power demanded – usually during a heat wave – sections of the grid will be turned off, in turn, to keep the entire grid from failing. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen often.

How long do power outages normally last?

Reliable statistics are challenging for professionals to gather, and nearly impossible for consumers to find. Here is what I have gleaned:

  • A rotating outage generally lasts only a few hours.
  • Here in our part of the world, recent planned outages have been scheduled to last for most of a day or all night. They say our upcoming outage will last 8 hours.
  • Unexpected outages caused by accidents or a blown transformer are usually managed within just a couple of hours.
  • And major outages can last for days, weeks and even months.

In 2013 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory started coming up with nationwide statistics for outages: “The state average outage ranged from seven minutes in Vermont to 1,100 minutes (more than 18 hours) in South Dakota. The national average was around 200 minutes.”

Since that year other agencies have maintained statistics, with complete reports available at U.S. Energy Information Administration. The most recent report, for 2015, shows average outages (not counting major events) of around 110 minutes.  You can get the full report here, with state-by-state stats.

Who do you call when the power is out?

Call your local utility to make a report and/or get a report. Now, if the power is out, your home phone and internet may be out, too, so it’s a good idea to have the phone number programmed in your cell phone or written down somewhere!

Should I turn off my home’s power if power is out in the neighborhood?

Always a good idea to switch off lights, TV, stereo, desktop computer, etc. so that the system won’t overload when everything comes back on all at once. No real need to turn off power to the whole house.

Leave one light on, though, so you’ll see when the power comes back!

If SOME things don’t come back on, a circuit breaker may have tripped. Basic instructions for resetting a breaker:

  • Know the location of your fuse box or circuit-breaker box.
  • Turn off or unplug equipment that connects to the tripped circuit.
  • Push the switch firmly to the off position.
  • Flip the switch back on again.

Circuit breakers are notoriously stubborn. You may have to repeat the off/on maneuver more than once.

Can I drink water from the tap when the power is out?

In most cities the water purification and delivery system runs with the help of electric pumps. If the power goes out unexpectedly and the system is compromised, you will likely be notified to boil water you want to drink, use for cooking, even use for bathing.

If you always have a supply of bottled water, you won’t have to worry. For a longer term emergency, you’ll need a lot more than just a few bottles, of course.

How do I flush the toilet when the power is out?

The sewage system operates on a combination of gravity and electricity, too, so your toilet may not flush if the power is out. You can pour a bucket of water into the toilet bowl to flush it down. The bowl won’t refill automatically, of course.

How long will food last when the power is out?

Food should last in the refrigerator for several hours as long as you don’t open the door! However, after 4 hours some could start to spoil. For example, meat, fish, eggs and leftovers that have been above 40 degrees for even two hours can make you sick. Food in the freezer can last as long as 48 hours but only if the freezer is full.

The test for everything edible: if it smells funny, looks strange or you just don’t know- throw it out.

How should I prepare for an unexpected outage?

Good emergency preparedness habits include having some things ready all the time.

  • Keep your freezer packed as fully as possible. Freeze plastic containers or even plastic bags filled with water and use to take up empty space. (Leave room in the containers for water to expand when it freezes.)
  • Store several days’ supply of ready-to-eat food that requires no cooking. Choose canned or packed items you know you will have no problem eating once you’ve emptied the refrigerator of edible stuff.
  • Have several days’ worth of bottled water. Don’t waste clean water on jobs that can be done using water that is old or slightly dusty, like water from the toilet tank or from the rain barrel.
  • Be ready with flashlights and lanterns. Our rule – a flashlight in every room! Consider emergency lighting for hallways and bedrooms – lights that will go on automatically when the power goes out.
  • Have an emergency battery-operated or hand-crank radio so you can get updates about the outage from authorities. Our most looked-at page is this review of emergency radios.
  • Be prepared and determined to remain calm. Treat the outage like an adventure instead of an emergency!

How should I prepare for a planned outage?

  • Fill extra containers with water to carry you through the outage. Use buckets, big pots, even the bathtub. Keep clean water available for drinking; use bathtub or bucket water to flush the toilet. Here are some more ideas for how to store water.
  • If there’s a chance that items in the freezer may defrost, put things like meat on a cookie sheet so their juices won’t contaminate the rest of the space.
  • You may want to buy block ice and fill a freezer chest with selected small items so you don’t have to open the refrigerator. (We pulled our chest out of the garage this morning in preparation . . .)
  • Distribute emergency lighting throughout the house and note where the flashlights and lanterns are located. Be sure you have extra batteries of the right size. See more information here: lanterns/
  • Charge your cellphone and have back-up chargers available. (They have become very popular and cheaper. Check out the model below in the P.S.)
  • Your heater may go off. Have extra blankets near your beds.
  • Make sure you have shoes or slippers so you aren’t moving through the dark house barefoot.
  • Clear floors of toys, small furniture, etc. to avoid tripping in the dark.
  • Don’t start laundry or the dishwasher if the outage is imminent.
  • Turn off and unplug sensitive electronics.
  • Make arrangements for back-up power for any necessary medical equipment. (Call the manufacturer for suggestions.)
  • Know how to open your electric garage door from inside.
  • Keep your car’s gas tank full.
  • If it’s too hot or too cold, consider going to the movies, to an air-conditioned mall or to a cooling shelter.

Maybe the best idea of all?  Consider going to stay with friends or relatives while the power is out.

This may all be familiar territory for you. But if it triggers an idea that you can implement to make your next outage just that much safer and more comfortable, that’s what we want!

Good luck!

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

P.S.  More on power banks:

Anker 10000 Power Bank for iphone, Samsung Galaxy, more.

Power banks really are useful. I used one just last night when I was away from home with a long call planned.  (We were testing a new emergency communications app.)  This bank is “Amazon’s Choice” for portable chargers. Click on the image to get current price and full details.

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