How to Handle a Power Outage

How to Handle a Power Outage

Whether it’s a short power outage caused by lightning, or a lengthier one due to a freezing rain storm, one thing is certain — power disruptions can happen and they can last anywhere from a few minutes to several days. Who can forget the 1998 ice storm that affected eastern Ontario and Quebec, the big northeastern blackout of 2003, and the December 2013 storm that affected eastern parts of Canada?

Downed power lines can obstruct traffic and cause traffic jams. Power outages can also affect our ability to cook, refrigerate food, keep warm (or stay cool), use electronics and to communicate in this digital age. While we certainly can’t predict when a power outage will happen and how long it will last, it’s important to plan and be prepared with these tips.
Blackout Emergency Supplies

Preparing for a power outage

  • Have an emergency plan in place for your household. The plan should include:
    • An emergency preparedness kit with essential items (see list below) in a handy container;
    • Protection for important family documents (birth certificates, passports, wills, financial documents and insurance policies) by putting them in a waterproof container in case of flooding due to severe weather; and
    • Emergency evacuation details with considerations for children, older family members, and pets. Pets are not always allowed in public shelters or hotels.

Make a commitment to update and practise your emergency plan and escape route with your family at least once a year.

  • Build an emergency preparedness kit. The Government of Canada recommends having basic supplies to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours that includes the following:
    • flashlight and extra batteries
    • bottled water (two litres of water per person per day)
    • non-perishable food that doesn’t require refrigeration or cooking such as energy bars, canned vegetables and fruit, whole wheat crackers, applesauce, cans of tuna, nuts and trail mix, and multigrain cereal (replace once a year)
    • manual can opener
    • blankets
    • spare fuses
    • portable radio and extra batteries
    • candles and matches (battery-operated LED candles are a safer choice)
    • a first-aid kit
    • a cooler with ice ready ahead of time (if you know the power will be out for more than four hours) to keep refrigerated food cold.
    • extra bagged ice – fill smaller zip-top plastic bags to use as cold packs to keep food cold.

Pre-packaged emergency kits and first-aid kits can be purchased from the Canadian Red Cross e-store.

  • Use surge protectors for electronics and electrical equipment.
  • Label fuses and circuit breakers in your main electricity box.
  • Install a backup generator (if your budget allows), wired to a transfer switch by a licensed electrician so it can automatically be switched on when you lose power. Always operate it outside where there is proper ventillation. Check out these safety tips for generators.
  • Keep a supply of firewood if you have a wood-burning fireplace. Have the chimney cleaned every fall to eliminate creosote build-up which could cause a fire.
  • Service natural gas fireplaces regularly to ensure they’re working properly. Many will continue to work without electricity.
  • Always keep at least half a tank of gas in your vehicle.
  • Keep a little cash on hand at all times. Having a few bills at-the-ready will be helpful in case you need a few supplies at the store and their credit card/debit machines are down.
  • Find solutions to help you stay connected.
    • Keep your electric company’s number along with other emergency numbers near your phone.
    • Purchase a solar or battery-powered charger for your cell phone or laptop.
    • If you have a traditional landline (non-broadband or VOIP) phone, keep at least one non-cordless receiver because it will work even if you lose power.

A woman reading a book with flashlight

During a power outage

  • Use only battery-powered lights such as flashlights. Exercise caution if you must use candles and never leave them unattended. Battery-operated LED candles are a safer choice.
  • Unplug major appliances to avoid a power surge once power returns.
  • Leave one light switch on inside and outside so you and hydro crews will know when the power has been restored.
  • Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning by using generators, barbecues, and grills outdoors only.
  • Ensure proper handling of food:
    • Keep your fridge and freezer closed in order to maintain the cold temperature.
    • A full freezer will keep food frozen for about 48 hours and a freezer that is half full will keep food frozen for about 24 hours. An unopened refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours.
    • Don’t place frozen food outside even in winter. The sun’s ray could thaw the food and animals could contaminate your food.
    • If you know that the power outage will last a long time, take your food to a friend who has power.
    • Check out the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s website for more food safety tips.
  • Help prevent pipes from freezing in cold weather by turning off the main water line and draining your pipes by opening the taps and closing them once the water runs out. Also flush toilets to remove water from tanks.
  • Use a solar or battery-powered charger to charge your cell phone. You can also charge it in your car and get updates on your radio, but remove your car from the garage and keep it in a well-ventilated place to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Check on neighbours, family, and elders to offer any help.
  • Keep calm and play on. You’re stuck inside and your kids are going crazy without their iPhones.
  • Dust off the board games, decks of cards and even books (if you’re surrounded by flashlights and LED candles) and pass some time the good old-fashioned way.

Concerned woman looking at pre-packaged meat to determine if safe

After a power outage

  • Avoid fallen power lines outside.
  • Turn the main breaker back on once advised it’s safe to do so.
  • Plug in only the most essential appliances first, and wait 10 to 15 minutes to give the electrical system time to stabilize before re-connecting everything else.
  • Dispose any thawed food that has been at room temperature for two or more hours. Food that still contains ice crystals or feels refrigerator-cold can be re-frozen. Also, clean and disinfect any areas that raw food has touched.
  • Reset your clocks, automatic timers and alarms.
  • Restock your emergency preparedness kit.

Power outages can take us by surprise, but with some planning and preparation, you can keep your family protected by having the proper supplies on hand to make things a little easier.

Have we missed anything? Let us know in the comments below.