In this post, we'll discuss what to do when the power goes out that ready.gov won't tell you. You need to know how to prepare for a power outage that disrupts basic services such as communications, water and trash pickup.
What would happen if the power grid shut down?
If the power grid goes down, water and natural gas will also likely fail at some point, so planning is critical. Without a plan in place, most of us would be in bad shape with an extended grid outage.
The power grid is one of those things we take for granted, but it's time to acknowledge that it's getting older. It is reaching capacity and it is under attack. As of 2022, the average age of the power grid is 32 years old. Power outages are over 2.5 times more likely than they were in 1984.
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.”
The site PowerOutage.US shows current outages, aggregating utility company data from around the United States.
California is likely to see more outages and brownouts this summer. PG&E has intentionally caused widespread outages to avoid fires. California has announced they will do it again this summer and other states are starting to talk about similar outages for various reasons.
Feb 2021 saw widespread Texas grid power outages due to cold weather. January 2022 featured widespread outages lasting over a week in some areas of the eastern United States.
See “10 Reasons for Power Grid Failure” for more details on what causes power outages.
12 Things You Need to Prepare for When the Power Goes Out
Note: If you don't have back up power, when the power goes out, unplug appliances and electronics to eliminate damage from power surges when the grid comes back online. Surge protectors can also help.
Report your outage to the local utility so they know that service is down, and provide any information you may have about power line damage to speed up repairs. Some utilities allow you to check for known outages.
Here are 12 things you can do to be better prepared when the grid goes down.
Make sure you can see when the power grid fails! Even a small flashlight can make a huge difference. Consider a flashlight for each bedroom, each bathroom and in your kitchen, garage, in each vehicle and one near your electrical panel.
Candles or oil hurricane lamps are other possible lighting source, but keep in mind they may create a fire hazard 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 to keep kids busy and serves double duty as a light and backup charger.
- Best inexpensive flashlight – We recommend a 5 pack of AA Kootek XPE-Q5 LED flashlight with adjustable focus zoom for more info on this flashlight see the “Best Cheap Flashlight” post.
- Best mid-priced 1000+ lumen flashlight – 18650 LED Flashlight Thrunite TN12
- Multi-function crank flashlight/radio/USB phone charger
- Kaito Voyager 500L AM/FM NOAA /2 band shortwave Radio, Solar / Crank USB Charger (that can charge your cellphone) and a reading light and flashlight.
- iRonsnow Dynamo Emergency Solar or Hand Crank FM Radio with LED Flashlight with USB charger
- Good small work flood light (has a magnet so it can stick to car while changing a tire) the NEBO COB flashlight is a great option, it uses 3x AAA batteries (get rechargeable batteries for emergencies).
- Solar Camp Light – Camping Lantern (with USB charger)
- Crank Camp Light – Camping Lantern (with USB charger)
Flashlights are great, but they only work with well charged batteries. If possible, standardize your flashlights and other battery gear on AA, AAA and/or 18650. Even though there are long shelf life batteries, we recommend rechargeable batteries and a good charger.
There are crank and solar battery chargers, also your car can charge batteries while you travel using a 12 volt adapter.
The charger and solar we recommend are the USB powered Nitecore UMS4 paired with the Nekteck 28W Solar Charger. The Nitecore can be powered with any USB source. The Nekteck provides USB power during an emergency and can charge your phone.
For more details see Best Rechargeable AA Batteries (Top Picks) and Best Rechargeable Battery and Best Battery Charger.
Keep a couple cases of water bottles around for emergency power outages. It's best to rotate your water storage, as plastic will degrade over time. Rotating also keeps the water fresh.
Take action if the power flickers a few times. Fill water jugs, bathtubs, sinks and other containers with water if you have them. Even a big bucket or rain barrel will give you options.
If you suspect power might go out for a long time, fill your bathtubs, and your sinks, and flush your toilets. Save dirty wash water in a bucket or plugged sink and use it for flushing toilets.
Your water heater likely won't work when the power goes out (even gas heaters have electric ignitions), so get yourself cleaned up and dishes or laundry done if you have time.
Finally, consider good water filters such as larger Berkey or ZeroWater or portable Katadyn or Sawyer. These can take questionable water and make it drinkable. NOTE: pre-filter with a cloth to extend the life of any of these filters.
See Emergency Water Storage and Filtration – What You Need to Know for a more detailed list of water storage and filtration options.
Nature still calls whether the power is out or not. If you suspect the power will go out, flush your toilets right away (before the power is out). When power grid fails, follow the rhyme “if its yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down” for short term outages.
Water used once for hand washing can be used again to flush the toilet. Also, don't forget to stock up on extra toilet paper.
With long term grid down situations, toilets aren't likely to work. Gravity handles the flush (in most cases), but the sewer or septic may rely on power to pump sewage. Know where your poop goes.
It might be necessary to poop on a newspaper, or in a DIY Emergency Toilet and store waste in a black plastic bags. Have some wet wipes available for clean up.
Another option is a folding commode, using a bucket and garbage bags. This is easier to use for those who cannot squat to poop. If you have the money, buy two, one for pee and one for poop. Separating solids makes cleanup simpler.
Also, if you are low on a sewer line, you may need to turn off your sewer to prevent back flow into your home. Get the shutoff tool and learn about septic/water shutoff BEFORE an emergency (the lock and depth will vary otherwise we would link a tool).
Work out a plan for garbage and dealing with disrupted garbage pickup. If you use paper plates and plastic silverware so you have less or no dish washing, that means more garbage.
How many large garbage bins could you set aside for water, or refuse, or cleanup, or garbage? What about critters coming around (rats, possums…) if you have a lot of garbage?
If you need to burn garbage, build a burn barrel that burns safe and clean (and make sure it is legal to burn in your area).
#6 Backup Power
Generator: If you have the funds, consider purchasing a portable generator. Remember, you will need to learn how to use it, and should test it regularly. We purchased a Champion Dual Fuel (propane and gasoline) generator.
You will need a heavy duty extension cord to power your appliances, or you can hire an electrician to hard-wire to your home's electrical system.
If you hard wire your generator, you need to isolate it from the grid during a power outage, so you do not accidentally electrocute a power company lineman who thinks your service is down.
If you are on natural gas, and the local pipelines have natural gas powered pumps, you might consider a natural gas generator. For rural areas we recommend propane. It lasts forever and you can store it onsite in a 500 or 1000 gal tank.
Solar panels: Solar electric is an expensive option compared to a generator, but solar doesn't run out of gas (except on a cloudy day). In general, a gas/propane generator will give more power at a lower cost. Even if you get solar, you will want a generator for nighttime and dark days.
Many grid tie solar electric systems only work when the grid is up. Make sure you read the manual for your system. See “For Most California Homes, Solar Panels Won’t Help During Power Outages. Here’s Why.”
Consider a more advanced inverter that can run without the grid, or consider a battery backup and/or generator if you already have solar panels.
See Emergency Power Options for Your Home for more information on providing your own power.
Have at least 3 days of food for everyone in the family – including pets. Stockpile non perishable food you regularly eat when it is on sale to save money. If you stock what you eat, it makes it easier to rotate your stock to keep it fresh.
We recommend 30 to 90 days of food storage. Think about including easy to prepare freeze dried meals 8 Best Freeze Dried Foods (For Prepping & Long Term Storage). Or make your own freeze dried food but read Home Freeze Drying – Before You Buy a Freeze Dryer.
Refrigerators and Freezers – What to do if you don't have backup power
When the power goes out, keep doors of freezers and refrigerators closed as much as possible. Make a list of what you need to grab and get it all quickly then close the door.
A chest freezer holds the cold better than upright refrigerators and freezers. A full freezer will hold temperature for about 48 hours (depending on the outside temperature). If the freezer is half full, it's only likely to keep food frozen 24 hours.
Refrigerators keep food cold for about 4 hours. A cooler with ice will keep perishable food better than a refrigerator for longer outages.
Fruits and vegetables are more forgiving than meat and dairy. Use common sense, if it looks bad or smells bad do not eat it. If your choose to eat something that is questionable – cook it thoroughly. When in doubt, throw it out.
A full freezer stays cold longer than an empty freezer, so if you have a freezer that's not normally full, keep frozen jugs of water in the extra space. 2 liter soda bottles or plastic vinegar jugs work well.
Don't fill the bottles all the way to the top. (Water expands as it freezes.) The frozen bottles of water also provide a backup source of drinking water.
Before using any foods, check your refrigerator and freezer thermometers. If the fridge is still at or below 40°F (4°C), or the food has been above 40°F for only 2 hours or less, it should be safe to eat.
Frozen food that still has ice crystals or is at 40°F or below can be safely refrozen or cooked.
If you’re unsure how long the temperature has been at or above 40 degrees, don’t take a chance. Throw the food out.FDA
BONUS FREEZER TIP: Put a penny on a few of your ice cubes. If the penny is INSIDE the ice when you go to use it – you know the ice melted and froze, increasing spoilage risk.
#8 Off Grid Cooking Supplies
Learn how to cook a meal without power BEFORE the power goes out. Make sure you practice cooking without electricity regularly, so you know how to do it and have the needed equipment.
Outdoor grills work well if the weather cooperates. Have extra bags of charcoal, depending on space and family size. Also consider extra propane tanks on hand. Remember to cook/grill meats that will go bad first.
Indoor natural gas stoves may or may not work when the power is out. Many gas stoves have an electric ignition, but you may still be able to light burners with a lighter or match.
Small butane stoves are great for cooking simple meals indoors, and store in a space about the size of a briefcase. NOTE- Camp stoves may not be safe for indoor use. Check before you fire up.
See Emergency Cooking – 10 Ways to Have a Hot Meal When the Power Goes Out for more information on cooking without electricity.
#9 Heating and Cooling
For people who live in northern climates, consider an indoor safe Mr Heater to stay warm. If you buy one, get extra propane tanks. You might need more than one. If you have a fireplace or wood stove, stock up on firewood.
If the power grid goes down will natural gas still flow? The answer is “probably”.
Depending on where you live the natural gas pumps may use natural gas itself, which means they stay online indefinitely. But some use electricity to power the pumps. If your area uses electricity, you will likely lose natural gas. You have to research for your area.
Check out Emergency Heat During a Power Outage and other Winter Storm Preps for cold weather survival tips, and Prevent Frozen Pipes.
For hot climates, read 12 Best Tips for Keeping Your house Cool Without AC.
Your cellphone battery will die. Get a solar charger, and/or car charger, Anker Battery Pack and/or crank USB Radio and charger. Test your charger and batteries when you change your clocks at daylight savings in the spring and fall.
Assume you might not have 911 or internet. 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 for more information.)
A crank powered radio that can listen to emergency broadcasts is also good to have on hand.
For more info on emergency communications:
#11 First Aid Supplies
Either make your own first aid kit or buy one. Have one emergency kit for home, one in the car/truck, and one for work. It should have trauma bandages, Quikclot, tourniquets, trauma shears, and all the normal bandaids and bandages.
You should have enough to be able to be survive for at least 7 days. Here are things you might need to make sure you have stocks of:
- Over the Counter (OTC) medications
- Prescription medications
- Thyroid meds
- Adrenaline (EpiPen etc.)
- Whatever you need (or might need) to take care the basic medical needs of yourself and your family
Get Trained! Learn CPR training and basic 1st aid training BEFORE you need it. Make sure the entire family is trained, even the squeamish ones.
A good kit is NOT cheap. We recommend North American Rescue products – these are real kits and you Operator IFAK or similar but only if you have training.
For more information on first aid:
#12 Everything Else
The listed items above are all critical items, but there are many more that will improve comfort levels if the power goes out for an extended time.
Money. Businesses that are open may only be able to take cash, or only take credit. It's good to have both on hand, especially small bills.
Supplies. Do you have one or two changes of work clothes for each season? The power outage might occur right before your weekly laundry day. An emergency stash of fresh socks and underwear can make a world of difference during an extended power outage.
Paper is handy to take notes. A deck of cards and a couple board games can help to pass the time. Do you have a box of matches or Clipper Lighters (we like clipper better than BIC) or flint/steel to light a candle or start a charcoal grill?
Do you have hand/body wipes, alcohol wipes and sanitizing hand wash so you can clean up without using drinking water?
Know How to Get in and Out of Buildings without Power
Learn how to get in and out of buildings. Practice at home, work and other frequented buildings. Locate stairwells and learn how to get to them. If the power is out, elevators probably won't work.
This seems simple, but try it at least once to make sure you can find your way with the building totally dark and with only a flashlight.
This is a good reason to have a flashlight at work and/or on your keychain.
Team up in a Grid Down situation!
A prepared group is much better than a prepared individual. Some may have first aid skills, camping, another is a mechanic and so on. A team has far more skills and resources than the individual.
Think about group communication, like local walk-talkies or ham radio for talking to the team. Maybe there's a designated gathering location. If you have a group each person can in the group can prepare for different things like: off grid cooking, first aid, handling generators or water filtration.
For most of us it's not a matter of if the power grid fails, it's a matter of WHEN and for how long. We all need to prepare for power grid failure. 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?
More Preparedness Information
The Common Sense Preparedness page lists over 100 preparedness articles, all sorted by category. They include:
- See all our Emergency Power Related Posts
- See all our Emergency Preparedness Posts
- Before the Hurricane – The Common Sense Hurricane Guide Series (Part 1 of 3)
- Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) – What You Need to Know
- Solar Emergency Gear – Lights, Power, Radios, and Ovens
This post was written by August Neverman IV. August served on several emergency preparedness teams during his tenure with local govt, at a 13 hospital system, as well as undergoing emergency response training during his time with the Air National Guard.
Originally posted in 2016, last updated in January 2022.