Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Emergency Preparedness: Lighting During Power Outages

Image from Wikimedia Commons

We've been talking about Emergency Preparedness, with special attention to the needs of families.

Previously we discussed preparing for the most common serious family emergency, which is a house fire.  Then we talked about having enough water in an emergency.

Now let's discuss the most common emergency most people will encounter, the power outage.

Power Outages

Just about every location in the world is going to experience a power outage sooner or later.  Most will be short and not very dangerous, so people don't always take them seriously.

However, sometimes power outages go on for days.  Sometimes, they last for weeks, especially when related to natural disasters.  What then?

Do you have a safe way to provide light in an emergency? To cook without power? To get important news and updates? To stay warm or cool as needed?

Each of these presents unique challenges in a power outage, but are easily planned for with a little forethought.  Let's start with planning how to provide light without electricity.

Lighting Without Power

Many people already have some emergency lighting prep for power outages.  Most keep at least a couple of flashlights and candles on hand, enough to get by for a few hours.  But it's good to take a look at what you do have, examine the pros and cons of each choice, then see how you can supplement these if a power outage were to go on for a while.

Although lovely, candles are a poor choice in disasters due to fire and explosion hazards. The Red Cross recommends against the use of candles during blackouts because they are a major source of fires during outages. It's better to rely on alternative forms of lighting than to risk creating an  emergency on top of another emergency.

However, some people will use candles because it's all they have, or because they run out of batteries for flashlights.  If you do use candles, use ones in a sturdy jar with a lid because they are less prone to being knocked over.  Be sure they are carefully supervised and never leave the room if a candle is burning! Don't put them close to anything burnable (like blowing curtains), and place them on a non-burnable surface just in case they get bumped.  Don't forget the need for a dependable way to light them (matches or lighters, stored out of the reach of children), and have a fire extinguisher nearby, just in case something does catch.

Kerosene and oil lamps are another option prone to accidents.  The flame is contained within the lantern so it's a little safer than a candle's open flame, and the amount of light provided is better than a single candle.  On the other hand, kerosene and lamp oil are highly poisonous, must be stored out of the reach of children, tend to get very hot, and need to be stored away from accidental ignition sources.  [We store ours in an insulated and latched picnic cooler, which helps protect them from ignition sources and contains any mess if they are broken in an earthquake.]

Propane lamps are another option, but like other liquid fuel lamps, are not recommended for indoor use because of the risk of carbon monoxide build-up.  They also need a good reserve of fuel if they are your choice for an emergency.

On the whole, LED battery-operated lanterns or flashlights are the safest choices for emergencies. Flashlights are better for finding your way around in the dark, while battery-operated lanterns are best for ambient room light.   The best models have both options built into one light.  There are expensive models, but there are also very reasonable models if budget is an issue.

Many stores also offer battery-operated candles that look like a regular candle but are safer.  These can be a great way to provide ambient low-level lighting for eating, family games, or a trip to the loo.  A mirror, aluminum foil, or a jug of water near a candle or lantern can amplify the light source without extra fuel consumption.

Headlamps are a great way to be able to provide focused, hands-free task lighting.  Most people don't have these, but this is probably the best bed-side emergency lighting you can have.  That way, if a fire, earthquake or tornado happens, you have two free hands to crawl, move debris, administer first aid, or pick up your child as needed.

However, if flashlights, headlamps or lanterns are your plan for lighting without power, don't forget to have plenty of extra batteries (of the right type!) on hand. You probably have enough for the short-term, but would you have enough for a longer outage?  Stores run out of batteries quickly in an emergency, so it's best to have a decent stock at home beforehand, just in case.

Another great product is a nightlight/emergency light that is constantly charged by plugging into your hall's electrical outlet.  These provide a nice low nightlight for everyday use, but automatically light up brightly if the power goes out.  Many models also have a flashlight option, making it even more useful in an emergency.  Think how hard it would be to escape the house in pitch black darkness after a disaster and how valuable automatic emergency lighting would be!

In a similar vein, there are lanterns and flashlights that you plug into the wall to keep charged.  Like the nightlight/emergency light, they are then are ready for use if the power goes out.

You can also purchase lights that are operated by crank or by shaking; they work by kinetic energy so you are not dependent on batteries.  These are great.

It's good to have a combination of both battery-operated and hand-crank lights for maximum versatility.

Portable solar panels and their battery packs can also be helpful if they fit in your budget. Solar garden lights can also provide temporary light if brought inside for the night.  They don't last year-to-year very well but would provide some emergency back-up lighting for a while.

You can also find many hybrid products.  For example, GoalZero has a cool flashlight whose battery can be recharged via wall plug, a crank, or solar power.  That's a very versatile and useful option.

Or there are products that serve multiple functions, such as a hand-crank emergency radio that also can serve as a flashlight or cell phone charger.  At least one emergency radio/flashlight should be a part of everyone's emergency stash.

Light sticks are a great cheap source of safe light that's great for kids. You can buy these very cheaply at Dollar-type stores.  These are the safest form of light after an event like an earthquake, when natural gas leaks might be an issue.  Even flashlights can cause a spark that might start a fire. (If you only have a flashlight, go outside to a well-ventilated area to turn on the flashlight and then go back in the building.)

The main disadvantage of light sticks is that once on, they don't turn off, they have a limited burn time, and they are not re-usable.  However, for the money, they are one of the best sources of emergency lighting around.  Keep some in both your house and car.  They can serve as emergency flares if needed, or you can duct tape one to your clothing or to the wall for hands-free lighting as well.

Obviously, there are many choices when it comes to providing light during a power outage. It's best to have several different options on hand.  Also store plenty of batteries, in case of an extended power outage, and have non-battery choices available too, in case your batteries run out.

Finally, have a couple of standardized places around the house where you always store your emergency lighting/flashlights.  Keep them there consistently.  That way, even in the dark, you will know exactly where to go to find emergency lighting.

Electrical Appliances

Another thing to consider about electrical outages is protecting your appliances and computers.

Turn off and unplug electrical equipment in the house during the outage so that if the power comes back with a surge or spike, your appliances will not be destroyed.  Surge protectors may be a good investment for really valuable equipment.

However, keep one light switch on during the outage so that you will know when the power is restored.  If everything is turned off, how will you know when power comes back?

Remember to back up the data on your computer frequently.  It's a good idea to have both a hard disk back-up as well as a "cloud" back-up.  Periodically back up a hard disk and store it off-site too.

Know how to manually open your garage door.  You want to be able to access your car as needed during a power outage.  You can recharge your cell phone and other portable items in the car (with the right cables), but the exhaust must be vented properly in order to do this safely.

A home generator can be useful for powering select appliances in an outage, but many are expensive, noisy and most need gasoline. Because of the risk of carbon monoxide build-up, do NOT run a generator inside a home or garage. Run them outside (in a dry protected area) and use an outdoor-approved extension cord. Know how to operate generators safely.

Or invest in a outlet-charged mega battery, which charges a power reserve that can be tapped to keep your freezer, fridge, or other major appliances running.  (Smaller, less-powerful versions are also available.)  A solar-powered generator is another viable option, which can be continuously re-charged with enough sunlight. There are several different versions available, so check your options carefully.

These alternative generators are pretty expensive but they run silently, don't put off carbon monoxide, and won't depend on a supply of gasoline (which will run out all too quickly in an extended outage). They may be worth saving up for, especially in areas prone to extended outages.


Power outages are probably the most frequent potential emergency that people will encounter in their lives.  Sooner or later, everyone copes with a power outage.

For a few hours, a power outage is no big deal, certainly not an emergency, and many people have pretty reasonable preparations already in place.  However, if an outage goes on for days (or occurs during an extreme weather event), it can present a much bigger challenge.  It's good to have some extra preparation in place for that.

Give some significant thought to having several different back-up methods to provide light if a power outage were to continue for more than a few hours.
Our StoryWe live in an area vulnerable to power outages, especially in the winter. Therefore, we have headlamps beside each bed, Blackout Buddy emergency lights in the halls, and battery- and crank-operated LED lanterns, and flashlights in storage.  We have regular candles and oil lamps from our impressionable youth, but use battery-operated candles and lanterns in an outage. In our car emergency kits, we have crank/battery hybrid lights, headlamps, and lightsticks. We do not have a solar generator but we'd like to!  Maybe someday.



Anonymous said...

thank you! I was not aware of the battery alternative for generators.

Anonymous said...

The headlamps are a great idea, I used one during the power outage that the October snowstorm 2011, around Halloween. It helped so much, I was able to see what I was doing, and during the long nights read too. I also suggest making sure there's enough batteries ahead of time for the headlamp. I had to change the batteries daily, the lowest power setting was less then a day. (it was the type of headlamp that didn't run a long time but it was better then nothing) People were asking me where I got it and I told them. The store where I bought at were sold out. Oh well. Those headlamps are great.