So many of us have become accustomed to having a cheap and nearly unlimited supply of electrical power available to us 24-7 that when a power outage happens, it becomes a disruptive event. Short term outages of only a few hours or so are easy enough to cope with, but what do you do if the power doesn't come back for days, or in events like Superstorm Sandy, weeks?
There are plenty of things you can do ahead of time to ensure that you can cope with an extended power outage without worrying about it ahead of time. The main things to think about are: lights, food, and heating/cooling your home.
PREPARE YOUR KIT
We'll start with planning our Bug Out Bag Emergency Kit, and what considerations we need to explore. If you are unfamiliar with assembling a BOB, read our article about it here. If you already have a Bug Out Bag ready, then lets move on.
Eneloop Rechargeable Batteries
The age-old stockpiling of hundreds of alkaline batteries in your refrigerator is no longer relevant an the days of bad rechargeable batteries are way behind us, now that we have the Eneloop batteries from Panasonic (originally made by Sanyo). We've been using them for years and they are fantastic. They pay for themselves after you use them just 5 times. Since they can be reused hundreds of times they are vastly superior in terms of cost savings over using traditional alkaline batteries. Beware of cheap substitutes!
Eneloop batteries come in AA and AAA sizes. There are C and D battery adapters available which are nothing more than empty cases which hold an eneloop AA inside and allows you to use them as you would the larger batteries.
As for 9 V batteries, there are a number of inexpensive options out there but the consensus seems to be that you are getting what you pay for. There are no 9 V batteries available from Eneloop at this time,unfortunately. Energizer makes 9 V rechargeables and a charger for them, which is a much better name than the off-brands that are out there.
Some Eneloop packages come with a wall charger that can charge up 4 batteries at a time. Thats a good start, but once you have replaced all your batteries with rechargeables, you might want to consider upgrading to a 12 battery smart charger like the one we use made by Powerex, which works with AA and AAA batteries.
If you are planning a way to charge your Eneloops using solar power, then consider a kit like the Guide 10 by Goal Zero, which can charge up 4 batteries via a 7 watt panel or a mini-USB input.
USB POWER BANKS
For charging anything that gets its power from a USB cable, like a phone, tablet, kindle, or lanterns, using a lithium battery power bank with USB outputs has a lot to offer. They can have large capacities, be weather resistant, have dual-device charging, and can be easily charged from solar sources.
One thing we should note here: not all lithium battery banks are equal. There are different grades of battery and different quality control that manufacturers put the units through. You can find very inexpensive batter banks but they will break on you when you need them most, trust me. It's better to spend a few more dollars on something that will last more than a few charges (at best.)If you want to stick with AA's being your main battery source to power your USB devices then look at a AA Power Bank charger like Verbatims.
Anker Power Banks
That said there are some decent ones that don't cost a fortune. Anker makes a variety of great packs that are cheap and good quality. You want more than 10,000 mAh for your pack, any less and it's only giving you one or two charges. I suggest getting the biggest one you can afford.
PRO TIP: Keep the power bank plugged in somewhere - don't just throw it in a drawer somewhere. Over time it will lose some of it's charge. If you can't keep it out somewhere then make sure it's charged up every couple of months. It's better for the battery life long term.
High-End Power Banks
Some are powerful enough to charge laptops and have varying voltage outputs 19/16/12v. This one of the reasons we like the Voltaic Systems V72 batteries, which are specifically designed to be charged from solar sources. They are high quality, can supply the correct power output for Apple Laptops, and are small. The V72 fits perfectly into one of the interior pockets of our 5.11 Covrt 18 Backpack. They aren't inexpensive but they are reliable.
BATTERY POWERED Solar
If you want to really get on-board with battery powered backup's, and want to use solar power as your recharging source then look no further than the products Goal Zero makes. Their all-in-one systems include inverters to you can plug electronics directly into them. You aren't plugging a refrigerator into their smaller units, but you can with the Yeti 1250.
If you are technically inclined, then you can build your own system like this for much less money or with much greater capacity. Google DIY Solar Generators and you will get a ton of ideas.
Having rechargeable backups is a great idea, but when they run out you need a way to charge them back up. Solar is a good option, but it can be slow, and only works when the weather cooperates.
So we think it's a smart idea to have a fuel powered generator as well. There are a million options out there, and your local Home Depot or Lowes can give you ideas. Local power equipment stores also typically carry generators. General consensus is that Honda and Yamaha make the best generators but there are many fine options.
The thing with gas generators is, well, they need gas. And that means long lines at the gas station, assuming the one near you has generator power, during a long term power outage. You can store some fuel but it requires some research. Read this article for some info about that.
Generators can also run on propane and natural gas, but they need to have different types of hardware to do so. There are prebuilt tri-fuel generators or you can get conversion kits to make a gas generator tri-fuel. A good proposition if you prefer to store propane, which doesn't expire the same way gas does, or have a natural gas hookup in your home that you can tap into.
Most homes have a few flashlights lying around that use C or D batteries and can run for a couple of nights. Thats fine, as long as you remember to stock up on batteries, or you are able to get them during the blackout. Those old flashlights also tend to be very large and the light they give off isn't much. And although the seem like the cheap option at first, once you consider the cost of the light, and 2 sets of batteries for it you could have gotten a much better solution.
Lighting technology has changed drastically in the last couple of years with the proliferation of inexpensive LED's and powerful rechargeable batteries. This has made portable lights smaller, lighter, and last much longer. The options are nearly limitless, but we have a few favorites to share with you that can help make the process simpler.You have two choices when it comes to small portable lights: built-in rechargeable battery or AA powered.You should have at least one area light and one headlamp per person in your home. We'll explain why below.
Area lights are used to supply non-directional light into a small area like a bedroom or tent. They serve the same purpose as the lamps in your home do, just on a smaller level.
One of our favorite lights is the Black Diamond Voyager because it checks off a bunch of different boxes: it's small, it's cheap, it takes AA eneloops, it's dimmable, and it has both an area light and a spotlight. We have several of these, and keep a couple in our camper and some around the house.An inexpensive option for an area light is the weather resistant Divine LED lamp. It takes 3 AA batteries and puts out 60 lumens. I would suggest getting a couple of these as backup lamps.
There is the neat Luci Inflatable Lamp which looks like a solar powered pool toy but is a pretty good backup option given its small sized when deflated, integrated battery, solar charging ability, and its waterproofing.On the higher-end is the Streamlight Siege Lantern. It has a low-light mode which can keep the lamp running for 295 hours off 3 D cells. It also has a red light for night vision. It's IPX7 rated so it can float and even be submerged under water for a short time.
There are fuel lamps that can be used, which either run on propane or lamp oil. While these are acceptable options for outside the house, we don't recommend using these indoors because of the danger of fume inhalation and accidental fire. Candles are also an option but also come with the high risk of fire. If you chose these options, please do so very carefully and with the proper safety precautions.
Headlamps are extremely useful because they free up your hands and allow you to work quickly and efficiently in the dark. They also give you directional light to focus directly on the task at hand. It's a great improvement over using a traditional flashlight and is why we think these are must have items in your Emergency kits.You can find a few inexpensive LED headlamps like this one at Amazon, that we've seen go as low as $8 when on sale. It's a smart idea to find one that has an IP rating, so that it can repel some degree of water if you get stuck outside in the rain.
Petzl makes a bunch of amazing headlamps, that start at 80 lumens of output (the amount of light) and we especially like the TIKKINA which is very lightweight and small, and only $20. Good for runners. The NAO is a rechargeable beast of a headlamp with massive output of 575 lumens. It's self adjusting due to its integrated light sensor, which adjusts the brightness and beam pattern.Getting a headlamp which has an additional red LED lamp built in is something to consider: red light doest ruin your night vision the same way white lights do. Red lights also allow you to be a little less visible or obvious, yet still lets you see where you are going. The Black Diamond Spot is a great choice since it offers both red and white lighting, is waterproof, and inexpensive.
The most immediate concern after light during extended power interruption is the food in the refrigerator and freezer. Depending on how much thermal mass (food and ice) is present at the time the power goes off will determine how long the fridge will stay cold and how long the food will keep. Rule of thumb for how long food can keep is 5 hours for the fridge, 24/48 for the freezer.You should try to have at least one full-sized cooler in your home available. You may be able to get ice from local stores. Steer clear of the styrofoam coolers, which break much too easily. If you have room in your freezer, keep plastic containers filled 80% with water and frozen. This adds thermal mass which will keep the freezer cooler longer. The more things in your freezer, the longer it stays cold without power.
Some of the best coolers available are made by Yeti, Pelican, and Orca. They are expensive but worth the investment if you use them frequently, as all of these brands will keep ice for up-to 5 days or longer in some cases.
Heating During a Power Outage
If you have a wood or coal burning stove then you are in good shape should a winter storm take out your electricity...as long as you have wood and coal! If you have a wood burning fireplace in your home, you can install an insert which will redirect warm air into the home, while keeping the smoke heading our the chimney. Some of them use electrical blowers to move the air in, so make sure you get a model that can work without electricity if thats your backup plan.
Those who use oil furnaces or natural gas systems require electricity to work. The least expensive backup option is to get a portable fuel generator to run the furnace during a power outage. Furnaces pull quite a bit of power so you don't want anything smaller than a 2500 watt generator. You should have an electrician install a transfer switch on oil fired furnaces, that way you don't back-feed through your transformer, which could potentially kill or harm an electrical worker on the lines outside your home.
You can also have a fixed generator installed that runs on natural gas or liquid propane that can switch on during a power outage. They are permanently installed outside your home and start as low as $2,500. Generac makes great options, check out their website. We're not affiliated with them, but they are the company most of our neighbors use.Kerosene heaters can be used indoors BUT they require lots of precautions. Michigan State has a .pdf they created about Kerosene heater safety that you can get here. There are also indoor safe Propane heaters. Same precautions apply.
In a worst case scenario, pitch a tent inside your home or make one with chairs and blankets and sleep in there. It will help keep the warm air your body generates inside a smaller area. Put a blanket on the floor to insulate it, and you can even throw a blanket or two over the tent. You could also sleep in a closet. The idea is to minimize the amount of air you need to heat. But if things really get that bad you may want to consider staying in a shelter if you have no where else to go.