Home Emergency ToolkitUpdated: Feb. 20, 2023
Stuff to keep on hand in case of a major (or minor) emergency
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Life support for your house
A disaster can make you a victim or victor. Luck plays a part, and so does knowing what to do. But nothing matters more than preparation. And that means having the right stuff in your emergency arsenal. Here are our suggestions to help you overcome disasters big and small.
A backup generator isn’t just a convenience that keeps the TV and coffeemaker going when the power is out. It can protect your most valuable investment. A generator will power the space heater that keeps pipes from freezing, the sump pump that prevents a flood, or the power tools that let you button up a damaged roof. That’s why some insurance companies offer discounts to homeowners who have generators.
You can spend less than $500 for a generator or more than $5,000, depending on the type and size. For a handy online sizing tool, visit generac.com/residential/sizer. If you have a large freezer, factor it into your generator sizing. A freezer full of spoiled food is costly (and stinky). If your setup will require long extension cords, factor them into your budget; a couple of 12-gauge, 100-ft. cords will cost you at least $100. For more on choosing and using a generator, type “generator” in the search box above.
Reader testimonial: Don’t wait until you need it!
When we got clobbered by a storm in ’06, our area had no electricity for three days. By the time the storm hit, the home centers and rental centers had already sold or rented their generators. But because I’d planned ahead and bought my generator long before that, my house had power—the only one on the block that did.
Protect your threads
Don’t be like that poor schmuck you’ve seen at the side of the road, changing a tire and ruining his suit. Toss a pair of disposable coveralls into the trunk, plus some gloves and an old pair of shoes. You may look like a lost lab technician beside the road, but when you reach your destination, you’ll look like James Bond. Disposable coveralls cost about $6 at home centers (in the paint aisle) or you can buy them online through our affiliation with amazon.com and other online sources.
Duct tape evolution
Ah… the ultimate emergency tool. Who could live without it? But duct tape isn’t as simple as it used to be. For one thing, you’ll find a wide range of cost and quality out there. Get the good stuff—extra strength and stickiness are worth a few bucks more, especially in an emergency. And there are new versions, like a 1-in.-wide roll from Gorilla Tape (gorillaglue.com) for small fixes and transparent duct tape by Scotch (3M.com).
Reader testimonial: Duct tape kept me afloat
While on a fishing trip, my friend and I hiked through a mosquito-infested forest to reach a secluded lake. The only boat available was a leaky aluminum tub. But that wasn’t going to stop us. Trusting our lives to duct tape, we bandaged the hull, and soon we were fishing in paradise!
LED lighting uses less power and lasts much longer than regular incandescent bulb flashlights.
If you can find your old flashlight in the dark and if the batteries work and if you’re lucky, you might get a few hours of light. For lasting illumination, there are better options:
- Batteries last far longer in flashlights and lanterns that have LED bulbs. The Multi-Function Lantern shown (about $25; energizer.com), for example, will glow for about 500 hours before the batteries die. A similar lantern with standard bulbs would shine for less than 10 hours.
- Hand-crank flashlights never die; they just fade away. And then you can revive them with a one-minute wrist workout. In our unscientific experiments, most models shone for about 30 minutes before needing a recharge. Get one at a hardware or discount store for about $15.
- For low-tech, low-cost lighting, light up 100-hour candles ($10.50 plus shipping through our affiliation with amazon.com).
Just remember that candles cause lots of house fires during power outages—and that’s more light than you want.
Jump-start your car (or your TV)
Jumper cables are useless if there’s no one around to give you a boost. For solo starting, you need a power pack. The simplest power pack is basically a rechargeable battery in a plastic case ($50). But some power packs do a lot more. The Powerpack 300 shown here (about $110; duracell.com) includes a flashlight and a compressor to revive flat tires. It even has AC outlets, so you can recharge tool batteries or watch TV for about an hour during a power outage. You’ll find power packs at auto parts and discount stores. To browse a wide selection online, search for “power pack.”
Reader testimonial: Charge lasts for months
I charged my booster and put it in my trunk in March. When I needed to use it in October, it still had a charge and jumped my car.
Emergency trailer lights
If you own any type of trailer, there’s taillight trouble in your future. And if you’re lucky, you’ll only get a ticket some dark night instead of an F-350 up your rear. But if you’re smart, you’ll keep a battery-powered bicycle taillight in your trunk (under $10 at discount stores). When a taillight fails, strap the bike light to your trailer, where it will alert tailgaters (and hopefully ward off cops). Don’t push your luck, though. Fix the problem ASAP.
And one more thing: Be sure you have a spare tire and a wrench for the lug nuts on your trailer wheels—don’t expect your car’s lug wrench to fit.
Instant tire fix in a can
This stuff is like canned magic for flat tires. Just connect the can to your valve stem, push the button and drive away. The can reinflates the tire and seals the puncture. But this is a temporary fix. Get the tire repaired soon (you may pay an extra $10 to have the sealant removed from the tire). Then head for a discount or auto parts store to pick up a new can (about $6). If your vehicle has tire pressure sensors, be sure to choose sealant that’s labeled “sensor safe” or you might ruin a $200 sensor.
User testimonial: Better than a spare
When I’ve driven through construction sites, my tires have picked up nails, screws and things I can’t even identify. Tire sealers have stopped the leak every time. If I had to choose between carrying a spare tire and a can of the stuff, I’d choose the can.
—Gary Wentz, TFH editor
The mandatory multi-tool
If you’ve owned one of these pocket tool kits for years, you might be ready for an upgrade. There are a lot more options now, and with a little browsing, you can find the exact combination of tools you want, whether you’re a hiker or a hunter, a truck driver or a firefighter. You’ll also find lots of mini multi-tools, some of them small enough to hang on your keychain. Start your browsing at leatherman.com or gerbertools.com. A multi-tool isn’t as good as a well-stocked toolbox, but it fits into your backpack or glove box easier. The Leatherman Super Tool 300 shown here costs about $70.
Reader testimonial: Emergency medical tool
I work as a paramedic. One morning we answered a call involving a 2-year-old girl having a seizure. She needed a nasal dose of medicine fast, but the ambulance didn’t carry an intranasal applicator. So I put the medication into a syringe, then cut off and crimped the needle with my Leatherman tool. A quick squirt into the girl’s nose, and the seizure stopped in seconds. Most paramedics carry a multi-tool. I feel naked without mine.
Be Prepared: Emergency Advice From Our Field Editors
Spare sump pump
Most people don’t discover that their sump pumps are dead until after a major storm or flood. And that’s when the stores are sold out. So buy a spare now (prices start at about $60). If possible, buy a pump that’s similar to your existing pump so you won’t need to mess with different fittings in an emergency.
David Gibson, Kittery Point, MD
Stash away cash
A few years ago, our region suffered an extended blackout. Our most important lesson learned: Keep an emergency cash reserve. When the power goes out, ATMs shut down and stores may not be able to process credit cards.
Instant leak stopper
After a record-breaking rainstorm, my basement sprang a leak. I mixed up a batch of hydraulic cement, stuck a handful over the leak and held it there for a couple of minutes until it hardened. Problem solved. Now I always keep a small pail of the stuff around—just in case. (A 3-lb. bag of fast-setting hydraulic cement costs about $7 at home centers.)
Jim Stapleton, Cherry Hill, NJ
Power cords from a portable generator can enter the house through a door or window, but I created a passage that doesn’t let in bugs, noise or rain. It’s just a pair of 3-in. threaded PVC fittings that pass through my garage wall. I unscrew the plugs, run the cords through and then stuff rags in the hole.
Jim Boyle, Houston, TX
Turn your car into a generator
If you want light-duty backup power, consider an inverter that connects to your car’s battery. For less than $100, you can power a few lights or a small TV. For about $200, you can get an inverter that will handle bigger loads like a microwave or space heater. The 750-watt power inverter shown here ($75; blackanddecker.com) is available at auto parts and discount stores. There’s more to using an inverter than just connecting it to your car’s battery, so do some research before you buy (donrowe.com is a good place to start). And if you want serious power, a backup generator is a much better option.
Bill Deitenbeck, Troup, TX