What Happens When the Lights Go Out

Power Failures - What to Do in a World Without Lights

Power failures are not rare and no one takes them all that seriously until they're in a bad one. In 2003, a massive power failure turned off most of the lights in the north eastern United States and Ontario. (and the airconditioners and the streetlights, subways, portable phones, cell phones, freezers) and they stayed off for up to a week in some places. it gave us a real taste of how poorly a city runs when the power goes off. Luckily it was summer.

Power failures caused by severe storms and ice in the winter are worse and families can go for weeks without light and heat. We usually think of power failures as acts of nature, but with summer around the corner and millions or airconditioning units soon to fire up we're about to put our strained resources to the test.

There are steps we should all look at to protect our homes and families in the event of a power failure.

Prepare in Advance

  • Having a standby heating or cooking unit that is not reliant on electricity is a great idea, but be certain that you can ventilate it properly.
  • Make sure that your chimney is cleaned every fall in case you need to rely on your fireplace for warmth during a winter black out.
  • Some people have emergency generators, but again, be certain they're properly vented and also be sure that anything you plan to run off it will do so without damaging your appliances.
  • You need emergency supplies. Prepare or buy emergency kits with a supply of water and food along with a small battery or hand crank powered radio, flashlight, safety candles and blankets/ sleeping backs for the winter.
  • Create a family emergency plan so and think through how you will contact each other and where you will go.

During a Power Failure

First determine how localized the problem is. Is it just your home? Your street? or wider?
  • Turn off your TV, computer, appliances and home heating/cooling systems. When I was younger the power surge after an outage caused our television set to catch fire- It does happen.
  • You can leave on one interior and one exterior light so you know when the juice is back.
  • Keep your fridge and freezer doors closed unless you really need to open them. The longer you can keep your food frozen or at least cold the better - still you and your neighbors might end up with a street wide barbecue if the power stays off for long- hold your emergency food until later.
  • Never use any outdoor cooking or heating equipment indoors - it gives off carbon monoxide.
  • Never, ever leave burning candles unattended and don't leave them just with kids in the room.
  • Stay home if you can - just think of all the wonderful news shots you've seen of violence, vandalism and looting during a power outage and be careful who you open your door to.

If You Need to Evacuate Your Home in the Winter

A sustained outage can make your home uninhabitable and the greatest risk of damage will be caused by frozen plumbing. If you need to leave:
  • Turn off the main power breaker and shut down the water main.
  • Starting upstairs, once you've turned off the water main, turn on all the taps, flush the toilets and drain your plumbing system. If you drain the hot water tank, shit off the pilot light as well.

When the Lights Come Back

  • If your basement has flooded, don't go back in until you know the power is off.
  • Any appliances that were flooded should not be reused until they've been thoroughly checked out.
  • Don't turn on more than you need to until the power flow is stable. Its not unusual for the power to fluctuate when it first comes back.
  • Make sure your food is still ok! If you're not certain if something might have thawed or not - Don't take chances - throw it away. As long as the    freezer door stayed closed, your food should stay frozen for 24 - 36 hours. If it started to thaw either cook it immediately or toss it.
  • Replenish the supplies in your family emergency kit.
  • Review your family emergency plan and update it with what you learned from your recent experience.