It's winter, and you always *planned* to get supplies if the power went out. Now it's below zero and the power just failed. What do you do for emergency heat during a power outage?
This post contains ideas for winter storm survival while sheltering in your home, but many of the ideas could be adapted for elsewhere, especially the section on cold weather clothing. Plan NOW instead of trying to remember all this when you are freezing and the power is out.
- Ensure you have fuel for your generator. If you don't have a generator consider a dual fuel generator.
- Get an indoor propane heater, such as a Buddy Heater. Buddy Heaters and other similar propane heaters are safe for indoor use.
- Before the storm – consider improving your windows by controlling heat loss.
- Honeycomb insulating shades are a good option to consider. Home Depot, Menards, Lowes, and numerous websites and stores will allow custom orders. We have Bali insulating cellular shades and open and close them with the sun.
- At least consider Insulating Curtains to reduce your heat loss.
- If its time to replace windows, consider adding storm windows.
- Make sure each family member has
- Make sure your propane tank is full for the winter.
- Make sure you have a few extra very warm blankets and comforters, buy them on sale.
Just Before the Winter Storm Hits
- Add extra heat before you lose power. If you have some warning that the power will go out, set the temperature higher in your house. The warmer it is to start, the longer it will take to cool. This could include warming normally unused spaces in your home to create more thermal mass.
- Fill bathtubs and sinks with water before the storm
- Test your generator
- Reload firewood so you have a full stock before the storm
Emergency Heat During a Power Outage – First, Eliminate Heat Loss, Then Safely Add Heat
#1 – Eliminate Heat Loss
- Avoid opening and closing exterior doors. We don’t think about it much when heating is working but a blast of cold can easily drop the temp 5 to 10 degrees with no easy way to get that heat back. If you need to go outside, go through a porch or garage or other area that can act as an airlock to prevent colder air from entering the home. You can even use the open area of your home as a portal, and keep a room closed for sleeping and living till the power comes back on.
- Close all the doors inside the house. This keeps unused exterior rooms from cooling your main living/survival area. If you have forced air heat, close the vents once the power goes out (don't let the cold into your warm room, or your heat out). Remember to open them when the power returns.
- Block drafts. Place rolled up towel at the base of a front door or drafty door to keep heat in or cold out. Hang blankets over windows and doorways to block out even more cold. If you have time to order them, you can get heavy duty draft blockers that lock to the door.
- Insulate windows. Close your blinds/curtains to insulate the windows (reduce heat loss).
- Consider moving to the basement. – Even though basements are normally colder, they can be “warmer” because of the insulating quality of the ground. 45 degrees ground temperature is a lot better than 20 below zero air temperature, especially with high winds.
#2 – Safely Add Heat to the House – Indoor Heaters and Alternative Heat Sources
- Wood stoves – If you have a wood stove, fire it up and keep it burning. If you have a limited amount of wood, burn at regular intervals, letting it get quite cold between burns.
- Indoor Propane Heaters. My friend, CJ Harrington, just commented that some Buddy Heaters (that burn propane) are safe for indoor use. Check and double check to make sure any combustion device you choose is rated for indoor use.
- Open Flame – USE WITH CAUTION – **Do not burn anything larger than a candle inside your home without providing adequate ventilation to the outside. Keep a fire extinguisher right near whatever open flame heat source you are using. Carbon monoxide and fire can be deadly. Pay special attention to kids and pets with any open flame.
- Use the sun for heat. If it’s a sunny day, open the blinds on the windows on the sunny side of the house. Place dark blankets on the floor, furniture or bed in direct sun to soak up the sun's heat. As soon as the sun goes down re-insulate the windows best you can.
- Run a bathtub of hot water. It will add heat to the house, and you will be able to drink it if needed (probably filter it if you have a water filter). If the temperature drops too close to the freezing point you can allow it to drain.
Unsafe Emergency Heating Options
You might be tempted to use a Coleman pack heater or Alcohol Fuel heater, but these can quickly build up dangerous levels of combustion products in confined spaces. The terracotta pot candle heaters (in all their variations) do help to trap the heat given off by a candle and slowly radiate it into the room. Don't leave open flames unattended.
I've heard from two friends who know someone who had a flower pot heater catch on fire. In one case, the pot itself ignited due to wax buildup, in another case, they had the heater on a table and the table varnish ignited. If you cook outside on a grill and bring the warm pots in, that will safely add some warmth inside indirectly.
Conserve Heat by Living in One Room
When faced with an extended power outage, living and sleeping in a single room will help conserve heat. Select a room away from the prevailing winds. If you have a room in your house that normally stays warmer than the rest of the house, that's probably a good choice. Hang blankets over the door to your “warm” room, and insulate the window with blankets if possible. Use painters tape, duct tape or other tape to seal the blanket over the window. Pillows function well as insulation. If by chance you have spare fiberglass insulation, bubble wrap, or Styrofoam sheets, those can be used to cover windows, too.
Heat may also be lost through the floor. Put blankets, rugs or pillows on the floor to further insulate the room. You can set up a tent in the house. The tent can also keep kids distracted. You can sleep in sleeping bags on a mattress in the tent to share heat and warm a smaller area. Having everyone sleep in the same room will ensure body heat can build up some also.
Choose the Right Clothing to Stay Warm
Layer your clothes – include wool and/or Thinsulate if you have it. Loose layers will keep you warmer than tight layers. Wear gloves under mittens to trap more heat around your fingers. Remember, extremities are in the most danger from intense cold. If you have no gloves or they aren’t warm enough, wear socks over gloves.
Look for a Higher Gram Count – When considering winter clothing, get 100 gram (Grams per square meter of insulation) or higher if possible. Higher gram counts provide more warmth. Traditional wool, down and fur jackets, hats and gloves are also good options. When you are active, it helps to have a wicking layer close to your body to draw excess moisture away so you don't end up cold and clammy. More on this in the post, “Emergency Underwear and Socks“.
From the 3M website – Recommended grams of 3M™ Thinsulate™ Insulation for footwear:
- 200 grams for cool conditions or high activity levels
- 400 grams for cold conditions or moderate activity levels
- 600 grams for very cold conditions
- 800 grams for extremely cold conditions with light activity levels
- 1‚000+ grams for extremely cold conditions with light to minimal activity level
Use chemical hand warmers in gloves, footwear or pockets – but be careful because they may be too warm to place directly against the skin. These warmers can be purchased almost anywhere. They are inexpensive and work fast. The heat can really make a difference for comfort and keep you from getting frostbite. Many gloves and mittens have a pouch for the warmers.
For more info, see The 4 Layers of Winter Clothing Everyone Should Know.
Keeping Warm While You Sleep
A bulk of your heat loss is through your head, so put on a light comfortable hat or other headcover to sleep. (“And ma in her kerchief and I in my cap, had just settled down to a long winter's nap.”) Use a sleeping bag if you have it. Wool is an amazing insulator, so combining a wool blanket a cotton sheet and even a mediocre sleeping bag can give you a very warm bed. If wool makes you itch, layer a wool blanket with a cotton sheet above and below. Use fur or fleece if you have it. Both are great insulators and can add some comfort. Put on warm socks/slippers or even boots. Watch those extremities! Sleeping in a group will allow you to share body heat. If you have your indoor tent set up, this is the perfect time to put it to use. A calorie dense bedtime snack will help you to be your own natural source of heat.
Eating and Drinking for Warmth and Safety
Your body will need more calories just to stay warm. If you are active (which will also help you stay warm), your calorie needs will increase even more. Eating raises your metabolism, which generates some additional internal heat.
Make sure to keep hydrated. Drink plenty of liquid. Hot beverages such as tea or hot chocolate can act as hand warmers while you drink and warm you from the inside out. They also add variety to emergency meals. You can melt snow for water if needed using one of the emergency cooking options. You may want to filter the water before drinking. Avoid large amounts of alcohol! A sip or two is one thing, but some folks think that if a little is good, more is better. The “warming effect” of excess alcohol is a false one. It can impair judgement and put you at an ever greater risk. Just ask the people that the cops found drunk outside the Packer stadium during the last playoff game. Not good!
Personal Hygiene – When the Toilet Won't Flush and Washing Gets Tricky
We take toilets for granted. When the power goes out, most of us no longer have running water. You should have emergency water storage and filtration as part of your basic preparedness supplies. If you have warning that the power may go out, you can supplement these supplies by filling a bathtub with warm water. Portable storage containers like the waterBOB or 65gal Emergency bathtub container attach directly to your faucet and come with a pump to make it easy to get the water out when you need it. This water can be used for washing, drinking and toilet flushing.
Note: You may or may not have running water when the power is out, but you can still flush a toilet by dumping a bucket of water in. (Use melted snow if needed, since it won't need to be sterile.)
When water is scarce, the “mellow yellow” rule should apply. Don’t flush the toilet unless you *really* need to. If you have no water for flushing, use a 5 gallon bucket and paper or sawdust to absorb liquid and odor. You could also cover a bucket tightly or use a garbage bag. See Portable DIY Toilet instructions here.
If you have a wood stove and don't mind getting a little primitive, you can do what my older sisters used to do. Rather than running out to the outhouse in winter (the farmhouse I was raised in had no running water when my parents started their family), my oldest siblings would poop on several sheets of newspaper and burn it in the wood stove. As I said, primitive, but it worked. I was very glad we had indoor plumbing by the time I was born, as I have used the outhouse when there was a minus 40 below zero wind chill one Christmas and the septic system froze. It was not pleasant.
No Power Often Means No Hot Water or No Water at All
If you have a well pump, a power outage means no water without a backup generator. If you're connected to city water, you may or may not have water, depending on the area affected by the outage and whether or not the city has backup pumps. In either situation, there may be enough pressure in the plumbing to fill a sink or two for washing, but you should have emergency water storage. (See – Emergency Water Storage and Filtration for more info.)
Even if you have a gas or propane water heater, odds are that you won't have hot water for very long without electricity. Most gas and propane water heaters have electric ignition switches to light the fire to heat the water. You have the hot water in the tank for as long as it stays hot, and that's it.
Don’t bathe unless absolutely necessary. Getting wet is a quick way to get really cold. Keep some baby wipes on hand for waterless cleaning. If you still have running water, protect faucets that are at risk of freezing by turning on a pencil size stream of water.
Cars, Cards and Food Storage
Your car can be a refuge. If you seriously cold, you can start car up and use it for an emergency heat up for a brief period. Bring blankets and other things that will get warmed up and bring them back in the house all toasty. **Remember – never run the car in an unventilated area. Carbon monoxide can be deadly. Have something to help pass the time that doesn't require power. Get a couple of decks of cards and a card game book, or some print books. Board games are great, too.
Use the cold to keep food fresh. If the power is out and it's warm enough inside that food in the refrigerator or freezer will spoil, move food to an unheated porch or garage or outside to take advantage of natural refrigeration. Statistically, here in Wisconsin, January is the coldest month (on average).
Stay safe and warm!
P.S. – Shout out to my husband, August, for helping to put this article together.
You may also find helpful:
- Emergency Cooking – 10 Ways to Have a Hot Meal When the Power Goes Out
- Emergency Power Options for Your Home
- Winter Car Kit and Winter Vehicle Maintenance Checklist and
- other posts in the Common Sense Preparedness series
Originally posted in 2015, updated in 2017.
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