In this post, we’ll discuss why the power grid fails, and how to prepare for a power outage that disrupts electricity and basic services such as communications, water and trash pickup. If the power grid goes down, water and natural gas will fail soon thereafter, so planning is critical.
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. As of 2019, the average age of the power grid is 30 years old.
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 plan in place, most of us would be in bad shape with an extended grid outage.
California is experiencing outages and brownouts this summer (2019). (Utility companies are cautious after power lines sparked wildfires in 2018.) The site PowerOutage.US shows current outages, aggregating utility company data from around the United States.
12 Things You Need to Prepare for When the Power Grid Fails
Make sure you can see when the power grid fails! Could you find your way out in pitch black with elevators not working at home or work or when traveling? The power will probably fail when you don’t expect it.
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). Consider a flashlight for your key ring, your pocket and/or purse and one at work.
Candles or hurricane lamps are other 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
- Kaito Voyager $59 Flashlight with AM/FM NOAA /2 band shortwave Radio, Cell Phone Solar / Crank Charger
- iRonsnow Dynamo Emergency Solar or Hand Crank FM Radio with LED Flashlight
- Best inexpensive flashlight – pack of AAA Kootek XPE-Q5 LED flashlight with adjustable focus zoom for more info on this flashlight see the “Best Cheap Flashlight” post.
- Good small work flood light (has a magnet so it can stick to car while changing a tire) the AAA NEBO COB flashlight is a great option.
- Solar Camp Light under $20 – Camping Lantern
- Crank Camp Light under $20 – Camping Lantern
- Best mid-priced 1000+ lumen flashlight – 18650 LED Flashlight Thrunite TN12
Flashlights are great, but when is the last time you checked them? Get batteries – a lot of them. Do you have long life batteries? You can get 10 year to 20 year life AA batteries.
If possible, standardize your flashlights and other battery gear on AA or AAA. 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.
- Tenergy AA and AAA batteries are very good but less expensive than the Panasonic
- Lacrosse BC-1000 Battery Charger
See Best Rechargeable Battery and Best Battery Charger for a detailed review of the best AA, AAA and 18650 rechargeable batteries. We also review a 21 watt solar panel that provides 5 volt USB power and emergency radios with built in solar and hand crank chargers to charge USB devices.
Keep a couple cases of water bottles around for emergency power outages. Rotate your water storage. Even water will go stale after extended storage. We have a 55 gal drinking potable water drum with a pump and roller base for emergencies.
If you suspect power might go out, fill your bathtub, and your sink, and flush your toilets. So its good to take action if the power flickers a few times. Dish water should be used in a bucket or plugged sink. That dirty water is just fine for flushing toilets — see #6.
Finally, consider good water filters such as Berkey and/or Lifestraw. These can take questionable water and make it drinkable.
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 its brown flush it down” for short term outages.
Flushing water is likely to be limited. Water used once for hand washing can be used again to flush the toilet. Don’t forget to stock up on extra toilet paper.
With longer power outages, toilets aren’t like to work. Gravity handles the flush, but the sewer or septic may rely on power to pump sewage. Know where your poop goes.
It might be easier to poop on a newspaper, or in a DIY Emergency Toilet and store refuse in a black plastic bags. Have some wet wipes available for clean up.
You need a lot of garbage bags (consider keeping 3 boxes). Plan for garbage management in advance. Stock paper plates and plastic silverware so you have less or no dish washing. But disposable paper plates and silverware 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, 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.
BONUS TIP: Garbage bags can also be makeshift tarps if a window is blown in, or you need to make something partly waterproof temporarily. But how do you hold the tarp or garbage bag in place? Duct Tape!
#6 Backup Power
If you have the funds and space available, consider purchasing a generator and learn how to use it. 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 hardwire to your home’s electrical system.
Solar panels are another option, but for short term power needs, a generator will power more at a lower cost.
See Emergency Power Options for Your Home for more information on providing your own power.
Refrigerators & Freezers – What to do if you don’t have backup power
If the power does go out, keep doors of freezers and refrigerators closed as much as possible. They will keep food cold longer if they stay closed.
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.
Choose sturdy bottles (2 liter soda bottle work well because they need to be tough enough to hold carbonation). Don’t fill the bottles all the way to the top. (Water expands as it freezes.) These bottles also provide a backup source of potable 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.
Produce is more forgiving than meat and dairy. Use your common sense.
#7 Off Grid Cooking Supplies
Figure out how to cook a meal without power before the power grid fails. Make sure you practice with your cooking choice regularly, so you know how to use it and have needed equipment.
Outdoor grills work well if the weather cooperates. Have extra charcoal (2 to 10 bags depending on space and family size) or propane on hand. Grill meat that would go bad first.
Indoor gas stoves may or may not work when the power is out. Many have electric ignition.
Small butane stoves are great for cooking simple meals indoors, and store in a space about the size of a briefcase. Other 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.
Start by stocking extra of what you regularly eat, focusing on foods that store without electricity. 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.
Consider purchasing a 72 hour kit or MRE type foods. 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.
- 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 meal with the family before you decide. You might like Auguson Farms, Mountain House, MREs, Wise, Legacy (or others).
- 5yr Emergency food bars such as Emergency Survival 2400 Calorie Food Bar are ready to eat, but you need to buy a lot of them if you are going to feed a family
#9 Heating and Cooling
Check out Emergency Heat During a Power Outage and other Winter Storm Preps for cold weather survival tips.
For hot areas, read 12 Best Tips for Keeping Your house Cool Without AC.
Your cellphone battery will die. Get a solar charger, and/or car charger, and/or crank USB charger. Communication when the power grid fails is critical, so make sure your backup charging option works. Test your backup charger 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.)
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.
See also the Best Battery Chargers and Batteries post
#11 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:
- OTC medications
- prescription medications
- whatever you need (or might need) to take care the basic medical needs 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.
#12 Everything Else
This list highlights critical items, but there are many more that will improve comfort levels if the power grid fails 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 a stash of one or two changes of clothes relative to the season set aside? (The power outage might occur right before your weekly laundry day.) What about a pair of gloves? An emergency stash of fresh socks and underwear can make a world of difference in comfort.
Paper is handy to take notes. A deck of cards or a couple board games can help to pass the time. Do you 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?
Don’t forget the duck tape!
Know How to Get in and Out of Buildings without Power
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 when the Power Grid Fails!
A prepared group is much better than a prepared individual. Plan with your neighborhood, and 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 team has far more 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, or different people in the group prep for different things, like off grid cooking or water filtration.
Why Does The Grid Go Down?
What causes brown outs (partial power loss) and black outs (full power loss)? Weather, Cyber Attacks, Earthquakes and other natural disasters, human error and the aging power grid. See below for information about each of these.
Snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes can generate damaging winds or debris that take down transmission lines so the power grid fails in a local area.
Cyber attacks are moving from theory to reality. 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 but so far no bad guys have caused problems … YET.
A police shooting in Madison Wisconsin in March of 2015 resulted in an “Anonymous” attack against police services. The individual paid hackers to disrupt 911, fire, rescue and police for the entire City and County. This caused emergency services outages endangering civilians. It was a small attack, but it had significant impact.
During Christmas 2015 and again in 2017 – Russia successfully cut power to 250,000 people in Ukraine. This included a denial of service on the Ukraine version of 911 services. It has happened and likely will again and not just in Ukraine or Madison.
Earthquakes and Other Natural Disaster
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.
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
This is a map of the aging US power grid zones. There are 100s of things that can cause a small local outage, a regional power outage or even an national grid power outage.
Recent articles about power grid risks and failures:
- Heat wave sparks major power outages around Los Angeles
- ‘Massive Failure’ in Power Grid Causes Blackout in Argentina and Uruguay
- Start prepping! Electric grid ‘prime target’ of terrorists, ‘profound threat,’ says DHS
- Over a Quarter of the U.S. Nuclear Plants Are at Risk for Retirement
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 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:
- 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 is the Chief Information Officer and Information Security Officer of Brown County Wisconsin. August served on several emergency preparedness teams during his tenure at a local hospital, as well as undergoing emergency response training during his time with the Air National Guard.
Originally posted in 2016, last updated in 2019.