Tips for Before, During, and After a Winter Power Outage

Winter hibernation can go from sleepy to serious when there’s a power outage. Find out what to do if the power goes out at home this winter.

The U.S. has had an onslaught of damaging winter storms recently — even the Deep South has gotten its rare share of snow and ice, with snowstorms ravaging roads as far down as Georgia and Florida. That means a lot of weather-related perils to contend with, like power outages. It’s important to know what to do if the power goes out in your neck of the woods, especially during the midst of a winter storm.

How to prepare before a power outage

There’s a lot you can do to keep your home from becoming a pitch-black igloo during a winter power outage. Here are some measures you can take before the power goes out:

  • Invest in flashlights, a battery-operated radio, and, of course, extra batteries. Another handy device: a hand-crank radio, which actually doubles as a flashlight and phone charger. Remember to check them occasionally to ensure they’re all functioning and store them together for easy access.
  • Always have bottled water in your pantry (store-bought or stored in spare containers).
  • Well before the seasonal cold arrives, insulate your place by caulking and weather-stripping doors and windows.
  • Consider installing alternative heating equipment (like a gas fireplace or wood-burning stove) in a well-ventilated space and make sure to have plenty of fuel on hand. If that’s not possible, battery-operated heaters can work well too. The goal is to keep at least one room warm enough for a lengthy stay.
  • An easy-to-miss but crucial consideration: if you have medication that needs to be refrigerated, remember to ask your pharmacist for information on storing it during a power outage.
  • Have an electric garage door? It’s best to learn how to operate it manually before the need arises.
  • Keep your pipes working all winter by insulating them with layers of newspaper covered by another layer of plastic wrap. (If you ever do find yourself with a frozen pipe, be sure to keep the tap on and use a hairdryer — nothing stronger — to warm the pipe.)

What to do during a power outage

So the lights are out and … you’re home. Now’s the time to put all your prep work to use and bundle up.

  • Since most furnaces require electricity in order to work, your place may get cold quickly — and in excessive cold, hypothermia can pose a threat. So wear layers, a scarf that can cover your mouth, mittens instead of gloves, and a warm hat since you can lose a lot of body heat through your hands and the top of your head.
  • If you’re concerned about preserving the battery life of your flashlights, hand-crank flashlights are a good alternative (and a good backup).
  • Don’t open the refrigerator or freezer door if you can help it. Refrigerated food can stay cold (and safe for consumption) for up to 4 hours, while frozen food can last up to 48 hours if the freezer is densely packed (or 24 hours if it’s less packed). For more on food safety in an emergency, check out these guidelines from the USDA.
  • To avoid a power surge when the electricity returns, turn off computers, TVs, and other nonessential electronics. But be sure to leave a light on so you’ll know when the power is restored.
  • If you have elderly or handicapped neighbors, help out by making sure they’re safe, dressed warmly, and have food and water. If someone has medical equipment that requires electricity, call for help or get them to a place where the power is working.

What to do after the power’s been restored

In the aftermath of a power outage due to harsh weather, it’s best to avoid going outside if possible. But, if you must, here are some tips to help keep you safe:

  • Practice extreme caution if you go outside to survey the damages after a storm. Remember that downed or hanging electrical wires can be hidden by snow, fallen trees, or other wreckage. Always assume that a downed line is a live line and highly dangerous.
  • Check in with your neighbors, just as you would if the outage were still in effect.
  • Use designated crosswalks and sidewalks if you have to get somewhere on foot. Roads will likely be slipperier than usual and cars may have difficulty stopping for you, so jaywalking is especially dangerous.

Protecting against storm damage

Focusing on manageable details, like storing emergency drinking water and using nonelectric light and heat sources, can help you prepare for an outage. But seasonal power outages can do more than just spoil your food or make you miss Boardwalk Empire. That’s why it helps to have homeowners insurance in case a winter storm causes your roof to collapse or a pipe to burst. You can spare yourself a lot of grief if you get top-notch protection for your home before severe weather hits.

Related links

6 great reasons to winterize your home
How to fight the winter blues

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