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Blackout Survival Guide

Prepare for emergencies when the power goes out. Our staff and field editors put together a blackout kit that'll help you and your home survive the electrical outage more safely and conveniently, even if you don't have a back-up generator.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Overview: Surviving a blackout

The experts tell us to expect more outages as the capacity and condition of our power grid go downhill. So we assembled this set of tips, a blackout survival kit, to help you cope—and maybe even thrive—without power. Of course, the best preparation is to buy a generator. But whether you own one or not, these tips can provide some comfort and convenience, safety and sanity during the next blackout.

Tip 1: Turn your car into a generator

A power inverter, which turns DC current from your car into AC current for electric gadgets, is the next best thing to a generator when it comes to surviving a blackout. An inverter to power a tablet or laptop will cost you about $25, but there are much bigger models ($100 and up) that can run power tools and appliances.

Field Editor Cameron LiDestri even used an inverter to get hot water during a recent weeklong outage. His on-demand water heater burns propane but also requires a 75-watt electrical supply. So Cameron plugged the heater into a long extension cord and ran it out to his car. “When anyone wanted a hot shower, I just started the car,” Cameron tells us.

Tip 2: Get cash

In a blackout, cash is king and an essential part of your survival kit. Some stores may stay open, but they probably won’t be able to process credit card purchases. And all the cash machines will be on strike. Field Editor Pete Plumer tells us he learned this lesson the hard way during a long power outage: Keep an emergency cash stash on hand.

Tip 3: Conserve batteries with LEDs

During a power outage, LED flashlights and lanterns have a huge advantage over incandescent models: They allow batteries to last much longer (typically about six to ten times as long). And LED technology isn’t just for flashlights. During a six-day outage, Field Editor Matt Kelly used LED “puck” lights, the type designed for under-cabinet lighting. “I stuck them up in bathrooms, bedrooms and hallways so we didn’t have to stumble around in the dark,” Matt tells us.

Tip 4: Fill the tub

When the power grid goes down, your city water system may soon follow. So fill up buckets and bottles for washing, flushing and drinking. Several of our Field Editors pointed out that the biggest reservoir in any home is the bathtub. And Field Editor Tompkin Lee added a critical tip: “Duct tape the bathtub drain. Most drains are not all that tight, and in a day or two, all that precious water will be gone.”

Tip 5: Fill the grill tank

A blackout limits many of life’s little pleasures, but you can still enjoy a hot meal if you have a gas grill and a full tank. During a three-day outage, Field Editor Arthur Barfield fed dozens of friends and neighbors by grilling the contents of his fridge and freezer before anything went bad.

Tip 6: Have a backup plan handy

If a blackout lasts long enough, even a well-prepared family will want to give up and get out. So make just-in-case arrangements with friends or relatives who are willing take you in. If you wait, you might find that phone and Internet communication becomes a lot more difficult.

Tip 7: Ice saves money

A couple of days without power can cost you a few hundred bucks as food spoils in fridges and freezers. You could try to buy a few bags of ice (along with everyone else) after the power goes out. But Field Editor Shawna Hathaway has a better idea: Fill locking freezer bags with water and keep them in the freezer. During a blackout, they’ll help the freezer stay cold longer. Or you can transfer them to the fridge or a cooler. When they thaw, you’ve got drinking water.

Tip 8: A CO detector is essential

Blackouts often lead to carbon monoxide deaths. Here’s why: To get heat during outages, people crank up fireplaces, gas stoves and all types of heaters—and anything that burns produces carbon monoxide. It’s OK to use these heat sources, but take a tip from Field Editor Kevin Yochum. During a recent outage, he fired up his kerosene heater—but first he placed a battery-operated CO detector in the room. You can buy a detector for about $25 at any home center.

Tip 9: Gas up

Even if you don’t plan to go anywhere, your car is a critical part of your survival kit. It’s your emergency transport, your charging system for cell phones and maybe even the only heated space you’ll have. So don’t wait until the blackout hits. As Field Editor (and emergency manager in New York City) Nathan Mandelbaum points out, without power, gas stations can’t pump gas from their tanks into yours.

Tip 10: Get a radio

If phone and Internet systems go down along with the power grid, a battery-powered radio may be your only source of weather and emergency information. You could listen in your car, but a portable radio lets you listen anywhere. Battery-powered radios cost as little as $20 at discount stores.

After the Power Goes Out
  • Unplug everything. As the grid sputters back to life, it may create power surges that can destroy electronics. Leave one light switched on so you know when power has returned.
  • Don’t use candles. Flashlights produce more light and won’t burn your house down.
  • Bring solar landscape lights inside. Don’t forget to put them out for recharging during the day.
  • Keep the fridge closed. The less you open fridge and freezer doors, the longer your food will stay cold.
  • Tap your water heater. It’s your built-in emergency water supply. Let the water cool before you open the drain valve.
  • Don’t take chances. Power outages mean packed emergency rooms and delayed ambulance service; it’s a bad time to get injured.
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