The power grid is one of those things that most of us take for granted, but it's time to acknowledge that it's getting older, reaching capacity and under attack. In the article “Bracing for a big power grid attack: ‘One is too many'“, USA Today states “About once every four days, part of the nation's power grid — a system whose failure could leave millions in the dark — is struck by a cyber or physical attack.” Without a preparedness blueprint in place, most of us would be in bad shape with an extended grid outage.
In this post, we'll discuss why the power grid goes down, and how to prepare for a power outage that disrupts electricity and basic services such as communications, water and trash pickup. My husband the ex-Boy Scout, August, pulled this list together to help you be more prepared.
Preparing for Power Grid Failure – 10 Things You Need to Prepare
#1 – Lighting
Make sure you can see! Even a small flashlight can make a huge difference. Consider a flashlight for your car, each bedroom, each bathroom and in your kitchen, garage, and one near your electrical panel and a couple spares (especially if you have kids who lose them). The power can go out when you don’t expect it – anywhere. Consider one for your key ring, your pocket and/or purse, and one at work. Think – Could you find your way out in pitch black with elevators not working at home or work or when traveling?
Candles or hurricane lamps are possible lighting source, but keep in mind they create a fire risk and fresh air may be a problem if you are in a tightly sealed building. One advantage of candles and lamps is that they do provide heat, which is useful for cold climates.
A crank powered flashlight is great for kids and serve a double function as a flashlight and backup charger for emergencies. Plus you can get them relatively inexpensively.
- Multi-function crank flashlight/radio/USB phone charger (consider one of these for under $20)
- Best inexpensive flashlight (get several of these) this is a less than $7 AA LED flashlight- UltraFire SK68 7W 300LM 3 modes Flashlight Torch, Adjustable Focus Zoom, Black
- Good small work flood light (has a magnet so it can stick to car while changing a tire) using AAA batteries under $20 –Nebo – “Larry C” Yellow 170 Lumens C-O-B LED Power Work Light Flashlight (3 AAA Batteries Included)
- Crank Room light under $20 – Camping Lantern ThorFire LED Lantern Collapsible Mini Flashlight Torch Light Lamp Powered By AA Batteries NOT Included for Camping Hiking Outdoor Gadget Tool
- Best mid-priced 1000+ lumen flashlight – Fenix PD35 TAC 1000 Lumen CREE XP-L LED Tactical Flashlight with Two EdisonBright CR123A Lithium Batteries
#2 – Batteries
Flashlights are great, but when is the last time you checked them? Do you have long life batteries? Where is your stash of 10yr or 20yr AA batteries?
Standardize your flashlights and other battery gear on AA or AAA if possible. Get batteries, a lot of them. You can get 10yr to 20yr life AA batteries. Consider rechargeable batteries and a good charger. They cost a bit more up front but can save you a lot over the years.
There are crank and solar battery chargers, plus your car can charge batteries while you travel using a 12 volt adapter.
- Panasonic BK-3HCCA8BA Eneloop Pro AA High Capacity Ni-MH Pre-Charged Rechargeable Batteries, 8-Pack
- Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA 20 Batteries L91
- BT-C700 V2.1 Battery Charger Analyzer Tester for AA AAA NiMH NiCd rechargeable batteries with Car Adapter 12V
#3 – Water
While we normally use refillable water bottles, we do keep cases of water bottles around for emergencies. Rotate your water storage. Even water will go stale after extended storage.
If you suspect power might go out, fill your bathtub, your sink, keep your toilets flushed BEFORE the power goes out. When the power is out, follow the rhyme “if its yellow let it mellow, if its brown flush it down”. You will likely be using a VERY limited amount of water to flush. A bucket of so-so water might not be that great to drink, but it can still flush the toilet. Dish water should be used in a bucket or plugged sink. That dirty water is just fine for flushing toilets. (Don't forget to stock up on extra toilet paper.) Finally, consider good water filters such as Berky and/or Lifestraw. These can take questionable water and make it drinkable.
- Berkey BK4X2-BB Big Berkey Drinking Water Filtration System with 4 Filters – 2 Black Filters and 2 Fluoride Filters
- LifeStraw Personal Water Filter
- Food Grade 3.5 Gallon Bucket With Lid
See Emergency Water Storage and Filtration – What You Need to Know for a more detailed list of water storage and filtration options.
#4 – Backup Power
If you can’t have a generator, can’t afford one, or don’t know how to deal with one, you can still be further prepared. Know where your power panel is and what each breaker services in your home and practice going to check the panel at least once a year with your entire family. If you can afford it consider a generator. See Emergency Power Options for Your Home for more information on providing your own power.
Refrigerators & Freezers – If the power does go out, dramatically limit access to freezers and refrigerators. They will stay cold longer closed. If you have a generator do you have a way to get power from the generator to the freezer? It seems simple but where did you store that extension cord? Maybe consider an extra one set aside for emergencies.
- Suggested Extension Cord – US Wire 74100 12/3 100-Feet SJTW Yellow Heavy-Duty Lighted Extension Cord
#5 – Off Grid Cooking Supplies
If you can grill, have extra charcoal (2 to 10 bags depending on space and family size). Grill meat that would go bad first and plan food consumption that way. A gas stove might have a pilot light but could also require power. Figure that out BEFORE a power outage.
A small camp stove can also provide a low fuel quick meal. A rocket stove, or mini gas stove can give a hot meal which can make a big difference. Have you ever cooked on it? Do it once a year, make a party out of it – roast hot dogs and then marshmallows. Cooking over a fire or grill is an option… but do you have mits / tongs / spatulas and metal plates and such to use for the food?
- Eco Zoom Rocket Stove (small cooking stove) EcoZoom Rocket Stove – Dura
- Tiny camping stove Esbit Ultralight Folding Pocket Stove with Six 14g Solid Fuel Tablets
This is really small, it can handle one or two portion warm up, if you want more consider the Eco Zoom above.
See Emergency Cooking – 10 Ways to Have a Hot Meal When the Power Goes Out for more information on cooking without electricity.
#6 – Garbage Disposal
You need a lot of garbage bags (consider at least 3 boxes). You might need to poop on a newspaper, or in a DIY Emergency Toilet and store up refuse in a black plastic bags.
How many large garbage bins could you set aside for water, or refuse, or cleanup, or garbage? What about critters coming around (rats, possum…) if you have a lot of garbage? Work out a plan for garbage for dealing with disrupted garbage pickup. If you need to burn garbage, build a burn barrel that burns safe and clean.
- Heavy Duty Gaffer's Tape – Non-Reflective – Waterproof – Multipurpose – Better than Duct Tape!
- Duck Brand 761288 All-Purpose Duct Tape, 1.88 Inches by 10 Yards, Silver, Single Roll
- Hefty Steelsak Drawstring Trash Bags, 30 Gallon, 15 Count
# 7 – Food
Start by stocking extra of what you regularly eat, focusing on dry goods. If you like a specific type of granola bar, or cereal or soup, keep a few extra of them and keep eating the oldest ones. It doesn’t cost a lot more and your day to day activity keeps the food fresh and you automatically restock.
If stocking up on canned goods:
- Use a Stackable Can Rack Organizer to rotate your canned goods with a first in first out rotation.
- Don't forget the manual can opener
Jerky, chocolate and dried fruit keep well and make a good treat after a few days of no power, no internet and no TV.
Consider purchasing a 72 hour kit or MRE type foods. They are expensive but a great thing if you don’t have food. Buy small sample sizes and taste test before you buy a bulk supply. If the budget allows, a home freeze dryer may be a worthwhile investment. That way you can store food you know tastes good that your family will eat.
The MINIMUM goal is enough food for 72 hours for everyone in the family – including pets. A longer stockpile is better, especially if you can stock a bit more of the food you are eating already, and supplement it with MRE, Freeze dried or other canned food you find palatable.
- Get Sharpie Permanent Markers to write dates on your cans and dry goods.
- Mountain House 3 day (72 hour) food kit for 1 adult Mountain House Just in Case 72 Hour Kit – Buy one per adult. Try buying and eating one with the family before you decide you like Mountain House vs MREs vs Wise vs Legacy (or others).
- 5yr Emergency food bars such as Datrex Emergency Survival 2400 Calorie Food Ration Bar are ready to eat, but you need to buy a lot of them if you are going to feed a family
#8 – Heating and Cooling
Check out Winter Storm Survival – Keeping You and Your Home Warm When the Power Goes Out for cold weather survival tips.
For hot areas, read 9 Tips Everyone Should Know for Keeping Your House Cool.
#9 – Communications
Your cellphone battery will die. So get a solar charger, and/or car charger, and/or crank USB charger. Your cellphone is critical so make sure your power for it is tested – try out your backup plans when you change your batteries at daylight savings in the spring and fall. Assume you might not have 911 or internet… so have a list of key phone numbers written down or printed out. Have LOCAL PAPER MAPS, so you can get where you are going even if a few roads are out and your GPS isn't working. (See Maps for Preparedness.)
A crank powered radio is good too. Get one that can listen to emergency broadcasts, and even better one that can listen to TV broadcasts.
- Walkie Talkie 5 to 30 mile = Midland GXT1050VP4 36-Mile 50-Channel FRS/GMRS Two-Way Radio (it can also use 4 AA batteries)
- Also consider HAM radio or multi-pack handheld radios.
#10 – First Aid Supplies
Either make your own first aid kit or buy one. Have one kit for home, one in the car/truck, and one for work. You should have enough to be able to hold yourself over if the police/fire/rescue cant show up for roughly a week, so that means medications, insulin, adrenaline, or whatever you need (or might need) to take care of yourself and your family. Ideally, you should get CPR training and basic 1st aid BEFORE you need it, and get the entire family through it, even the squeamish ones.
Some good rated first aid kits:
- Elite First Aid Fully Stocked GI Issue Medic Kit Bag, Large
- Ever Ready First Aid Fully Stocked First Responder Kit, Orange
- Ultra-Light & Small 100-Piece First Aid Kit w/ Unique Items, Durable Nylon Case – Ideal for the Car, Kitchen, School, Camping, Hiking, Travel, Office, Sports, Hunting and Home, Emergency & Survival
All the OTHER stuff – And since clean water will be scarce, do you have extra paper plates and plastic silverware? Oh and that means garbage… so extra garbage bags where are those? Garbage bags are a big deal as they can be makeshift tarps if a window is blown in. But how do you hold the tarp or garbage bag in place? Where is your stash of duct tape? Oh and clothes? Do you have a stash of one or two changes of clothes relative to the season set aside – maybe the power outage occurs right before your weekly laundry day? Do you have a pair of gloves? Do you have PAPER to take notes and a deck of cards with game directions so when the power is out and the cellphones stop working you can play a board game or card game? Do you actually have a box of matches to light a candle or start a charcoal grill? Do you have hand wipes, alcohol swipes and sanitizing hand wash so you can clean up without using drinking water?
- Bicycle Standard Index Playing Cards
- Hefty Steelsak Drawstring Trash Bags, 30 Gallon, 15 Count
- Spyderco Tenacious G-10 Combination edge black blade
Read 20 Things I Wish I Had Before the Flash Flood Emergency to a full list of items you may not have considered for emergency preps.
Getting In & Out – Know how to get in and out of buildings at home, work and frequented buildings if the power is out, and elevators aren’t working. This seems simple but try it at least once, just to make sure you can find your way with the building black and you only having a flashlight.
TEAM UP! – Plan with your neighborhood, with your friends and family. Maybe one person is good at first aid, another is a camper, another is a hunter and so on. A prepared group is much better than a prepared individual. Teams win, build a team. This can lead to other ideas like local walk-talkies; ham radio for talking to the team. Maybe you get bicycles so everyone can join up at the guy with the big house. If its out in the country up north it could be a big gas tank a friend's house, and/or snow mobiles, or ATVs – a team has far more resources than the individual.
Storage – Where to put all this stuff? See Preparedness Storage – Finding Room and Keeping it Safe and Sound
Power Grid Failure – Why Does The Grid Go Down?
What causes brown outs (partial power loss) and black outs (full power loss)?
Weather – Snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes can generate damaging winds or debris that take down power lines.
Cyber Attacks – Cyber attacks are moving from theory to reality. A recent cyber attack in Russia took down the Ukraine power grid. The US utility grid is attacked constantly, it is likely the hackers will eventually succeed and do something bad. (Airports have also been hacked numerous times. Infrastructures breached so far no bad guys taking action … YET. In Madison Wisconsin – a police action resulted in an “Anonymous” attack against police services. The protest hack resulted in actually interfering with 911, fire, rescue and police for the entire County. Hackers attacked with the intent of going after the “bad cops” and actually caused outages of services. This was a small attack but it had significant impact.
Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters – In 1989 Canada experienced a power outage related to a solar flare. Brownouts and storm related power outages are more common. Earthquakes damage infrastructure, which may take significant time to repair.
Human Error/Disasters – In 2003, there was a “software bug” power outage, which affected an estimated 10 million people in Ontario and 45 million people in eight U.S. states . 9/11 is another example of a disaster that impacted services including regional phone services and transportation.
Aging Power Grid and Increased Demand – The article “Aging US Power Grid Blacks Out More Than Any Other Developed Nation” notes:
The United States endures more blackouts than any other developed nation as the number of U.S. power outages lasting more than an hour have increased steadily for the past decade, according to federal databases at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC).
According to federal data, the U.S. electric grid loses power 285 percent more often than in 1984, when the data collection effort on blackouts began. That’s costing American businesses as much as $150 billion per year, the DOE reported, with weather-related disruptions costing the most per event.
“The root causes” of the increasing number of blackouts are aging infrastructure and a lack of investment and clear policy to modernize the grid. The situation is worsened by gaps in the policies of federal and local commissioners. And now there are new risks to the grid from terrorism and climate change's extreme impacts, Amin said.
Also, demand for electricity has grown 10 percent over the last decade, even though there are more energy-efficient products and buildings than ever. And as Americans rely increasingly on digital devices, summers get hotter (particularly in the southern regions of the U.S.) and seasonal demand for air conditioning grows, the problem is only getting worse.
The video below shows a recent PBS special discussing just how vulnerable the grid is:
As you can see, for most of us it's not a matter of if the power will go out, it's a matter of when and for how long. Many of the tips shared here are a good idea for general preparedness as well as power outages. We always need food, water and shelter.
Has grid stability been a problem in your area? What's your biggest concern if the power grid goes down for an extended time?