Surviving Power Outages

Do You Know What to Do When the Lights Go Out?

power line worker
Worker fixing power after hurricane Katrina. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Humankind spent a lot of its history without electricity, so you'd think we'd be fine roughing it for a day or two. Unfortunately, the reality is we're quite dependent on electricity for some very basic needs. Forget the cell phone or the computer—the safety of our food and water depends on a stable energy supply. Knowing how to stay safe during a power outage is essential in our modern world.


rotten fruit in a refrigerator
A nearly empty fridge isn't going to keep food fresh for long. Tim Platt / Getty Images

Frozen and refrigerated food should be fine in any power outage lasting less than two hours. Some precautions may need to be taken if the power outage is expected to last more than two hours.

If the power goes out, a full freezer should still keep food frozen for 48 hours, and a half-full freezer should last 24 hours. These estimates are shortened if the door is opened, and the more the door is opened, the less effective the freezer will be.

Nonfrozen perishables must be kept below 40 degrees Fahrenheit at all times. Without opening the door, the typical refrigerator should keep food cold for about four hours during a power outage. If the power is anticipated to be out longer than four hours, all eggs, dairy, meat, and fish should be packed into a cooler with ice. A digital, quick-read thermometer can be used to determine if food is cold enough. Discard any food warmer than 40 degrees.

If you're thinking that the 40 degree rule seems too harsh, consider this: if a dairy farmer's milk tank ever climbs above 40 degrees, the entire tank—sometimes thousands of gallons—has to be thrown out.

Safe Drinking Water

assorted water bottles
Keep a few bottles of water on hand just in case. Glow Cuisine / Getty Images

Water purification systems may not operate in a power failure. Your local water utility should be able to tell you if water safety will be affected. The American Red Cross suggests the average person requires a gallon of water per day—half to drink and half for other uses. One and a half gallons will be needed on hot days (see summer tips at the end).

The best bet is to store bottled water for use in an emergency. If bottled water is not available, tap water can be used if boiled for at least one minute. Using other methods to purify water are not as effective. Remember, if chemical means are used to purify water, parasitic organisms are probably not removed.

Staying Connected

vintage telephone
Vintage telephones don't go silent just because the power is out. Ruth Hornby Photography / Getty Images

Most cordless phones will not work without electricity. Regular, landline telephones—those that use only a phone line and do not require a power cord or batteries—will continue to operate during most power outages. Cell phones may or may not function properly. Cell phone systems also have a tendency to overload when the power is out because of overuse. It's best to keep at least one regular, old-fashion phone in the house for emergencies.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

gas burner
Using a stovetop for heat is a sure way to die from carbon monoxide poisoning. Sami Sarkis / Getty Images

Burning wood or charcoal for heat or cooking is a major source of carbon monoxide. Diesel or gasoline generators also produce carbon monoxide. Neither of these should be done in a closed shelter. Only burn wood in a proper fireplace or wood stove. Charcoal should never be burned inside the house or garage.

Never use stoves or ovens to heat a home. Carbon monoxide is formed when gas is burned in this manner and could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Summer Tips

death valley sign
Summer heat gets a little warmer without air conditioning. David McNew / Getty Images

Summer storms and high heat can cause a loss of power during the summer months. Without air conditioning, heat illness becomes a real threat. Water consumption will be higher in hot, humid conditions. Expect to drink a gallon of water per day per person during the summer.

The CDC recommends these steps for avoiding heat illness:

  • Drink a non-alcoholic glass of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes, at least one gallon each day.
  • Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
  • When indoors without air conditioning, open windows—if outdoor air quality permits—and use fans.
  • Take cool showers or baths.
  • If you feel dizzy, weak, or overheated, go to a cool place. Sit or lie down, drink water, and wash your face with cool water. If you don't feel better soon, call 911.
  • Work during cooler hours of the day when possible, or distribute the workload evenly throughout the day.

Look for signs of heat illness in yourself and others, especially those of heat stroke:

Winter Tips

power line knocked down by ice
Ice kills the power, but at least the beer can stay cold outside. Robert Barnes / Getty Images

Ice storms are a significant cause of power failure during the coldest part of the year. In homes with gas furnaces, there should still be heat even during a power outage, unless the furnace has an electric ignition.

To avoid hypothermia during a power outage:

  • Wear multiple layers of clothing.
  • Keep moving as long as you have plenty of food and water.

Homes without heat during the winter may not be safe to occupy. Learn to recognize

symptoms of hypothermia


  • shivering
  • confusion
  • fumbling fingers
  • difficulty walking

Contact your local public health department for shelters during extreme hot or

cold weather


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