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How to Prepare for a Power Outage – Without a Generator

Written by Matt Jabs - 13 Comments

Since most power outages occur during the spring and summers months, this article will focus on power outages in warmer weather. If you experience an outage in cold weather, make sure you have an alternative heat source such as a propane-powered heater and lots of fuel! Either that, or you’ll need a generator.

This past weekend we had some beautifully terrible thunderstorms that knocked out power for the better part of two days. Though the outage was a pain in the butt, the experience provided us the rare opportunity of being “unplugged” and turned out to be a real blessing in disguise.

Like so many other unexpected situations, involuntarily living without power caused us to think outside the box and to brainstorm ways to prepare in the event that something similar happens again. We were slapped in the face by the reality of our sheer dependence on grid living, and quickly began to revert to products and techniques employed by our ancestors in the pre-electricity era.

We thought about renting a generator but decided against it and chose to “tough it out” instead. Over the last 2 years, we’ve had to rent a generator three times, costing us around $50 each time. We considered purchasing a generator but due to the high debt repayment plan we’re following, we haven’t been able to delegate the $700 needed to purchase one. Instead, we’ve put a few great fundamental precautions in place to prepare ourselves for situations like these.

How to deal with a power outage

  • Stay informed. Know your power company’s phone number and call them immediately to report the outage. They will also be able to give you an estimate of how long the outage will last. Another thing you’ll need to stay informed is a crank operated radio.
  • Maintain a good first aid kit. Be sure to include a few days supply of any prescription medications.
  • Ensure you have a good water source. If you have an electric well pump, you’ll lose water pressure, so be sure you have enough drinking water ready.
  • Create an old time refrigerator. Keep ten or more two liter bottles or half gallon milk containers filled with water in your freezer. When the power goes out, place five or six of the frozen bottles in your refrigerator to keep things cool. This is actually how the original refrigerators worked.
  • Pack a cooler of food. Take a few essential food items out of your fridge and place them in a camping cooler with two or three more frozen containers, or with some of the ice cubes from your freezer.
  • Tape off your fridge and freezer. Put painters or masking tape over your fridge and freezer doors so you don’t absent-mindedly open them. This will help keep all the precious cool air inside where it belongs. You can also put heavy blankets over them for added insulation.
  • Candles, lighters, flashlights, and batteries. Stockpile twenty or more large, cheap candles for use as light sources. Keep several candles in each room and give each person (but not your kids!) a lighter. When anyone enters or leaves a room they can light or blow out the candle accordingly. You’ll also want to stockpile batteries and give each person in your house a personal flashlight. I suggest investing in a good flashlight such as a Surefire. There’s a high initial cost, but these lights are virtually indestructible and will last forever as long as you don’t lose them.
  • Have a camp stove ready. If you have an electric stove, invest in a propane powered camp stove and a few portable propane bottles so you’ll have a way to cook if needed. Just be sure to read the instructions for your stove and cook outside if necessary.
  • Prepare your pantry with a few quick emergency meals. An example of a meal that you can whip up quickly and with minimal effort is black bean spaghetti. Mix together a can of black beans & a can of spaghetti sauce, boil up some noodles and voíla, you have yourself a healthy and cheap emergency meal. Some other quick & easy options are soup, crackers, beans, and peanut butter & honey sandwiches (my wife’s favorite).
  • Have a collection of non-electric games. These will give you something fun while the power is it. Consider things such as Yahtzee, playing cards, dice, trivia, charades, Monopoly, etc. My wife and I played Yahtzee by candlelight. Very fun and actually quite romantic.
  • Make sure you have “car chargers” for cell phones. This will ensure that you can keep your battery charged even when the power is out. Just be sure to plug your phone in during any car trips during the power outage, no matter how short they might be.
  • Disconnect garage door opener. Make sure you know how to disconnect your garage door opener so you can get the car out of the garage.
  • Go outside. If it is still light and the weather is nice, go for a walk or a bike ride, or any other activity to get you out of the house. Sometimes my wife and I go for a nice relaxing drive in the country. Just be careful with gas usage if your local gas stations are also affected by the outage.
  • Internet access. If you need internet access and have a laptop, take it to your local coffee shop. If you don’t have a laptop, go to your local library. Of course, if the outage is widespread, you might be out of luck.
  • Maintain a positive attitude. This is crucial for keeping spirits high… Especially if you’re the head of the house.

These tips, when employed as directed above, will help you wait out a two or three day power outage without losing all the food in your fridge to spoilage. If you are out of power much longer than this, you will likely need a generator.

Life without power

During our recent outage, my wife and I realized that we actually enjoyed our “time in the dark.” The time we spent without electricity was some of the best we have spent together in months. We talked for hours, went for a long bike ride in the rain, and played Yahtzee by candlelight. We had so much fun together, and were able to truly pay our full attention to one another, that we enjoyed each other’s company on a deep and unusual level without all the interruptions of modern life.

Because of this, and as an additional way to lower our monthly expenses, we’re considering going “Off The Grid” one day a week. We’re actually going to turn off all the breakers in our electric panel and live as though we have no electricity (with the exception of our refrigerator and freezer of course). But that’s another post for another time!

Published on April 30th, 2009
Modified on October 4th, 2011 - 13 Comments
Filed under: Energy, Frugality, House & Home

About the author: is a thirty-something IT manager and blogger who wants to help himself and others get out of debt. He writes about personal finance and debt-free living at Debt Free Adventure.

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13 Responses to “How to Prepare for a Power Outage – Without a Generator”

  1. 1
    the weakonomist Says:

    The new FCN contributor! Welcome Matt!

    About 10 years ago we had a huge ice storm. It knocked out our power for 6 days and we had to camp out in the den and keep a fire going. It was so cold. We even cooked meals over the fire (boy scouts to the rescue).

    We never thought of getting a generator but my dad got a kerosene heater after the whole fiasco. Naturally we never needed it again. We stayed in touch with the world using batteries and a flashlight/radio that ran on solar and a hand crank.

  2. 2
    Alan @ Saving For Serenity Says:

    Great post, Matt.

    This is an area I definitely struggle with, as I never feel the need to prepare for emergencies until it is too late. Living in a larger city, I think our power goes out less frequently than it might in a rural area.

    I love that you were able to spend some quality time with your wife! Sometimes it takes a few “emergencies” like the power going out to refocus on each other. I know that for my fiancee and I, we have to plan some “dark” nights where we don’t turn anything on, just so we can reconnect.

    Looking forward to hearing more from you.

  3. 3
    K-IntheHouse Says:

    Matt, congratulations on your first post here! A really good one to start with and you have set your bar high! :-)

    We missed out on this power outage here as we were on a road trip to Atlanta! One thing I’d never been prepared until it occurred to learn how to disconnect the garage door! Now, I’ll have to find out or you should show me how when we meet next.

  4. 4
    Matt Jabs Says:

    Thank you gentlemen, it is an honor and a privilege.

    Look for my post on voluntary “Off the grid” living next week.

  5. 5
    Sarah Says:

    A good source for cheap candles is your local thrift store. Especially the larger ones.

  6. 6
    Glenn Says:

    One thing I have done to prepare is to have a UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply) hooked up to my cable modem, wireless router, VOIP adapter and phone. If the power goes out I can still surf the web and make phone calls. Since the equipment doesn’t draw much power the UPS will run it for several hours. If you needed several days you could increase the capacity of the UPS.

    I also have a car jump box that has an inverter built-in. Comes in real handy in the summertime to run a fan to keep me cool at night, so I can sleep.

  7. 7
    Austin Says:

    If you happen to have some solar panels or a wind turbine, you can avoid the power outage issue altogether!

  8. 8
    Corporate Barbarian Says:

    My house, car, and office are stocked with many of the items that you list in your post. My wife calls me a preparedness freak, among other things. When the power goes out, though, she’s thankful. Nice post.

  9. 9
    Pensacola Says:

    “Water” is absolutely your #1 concern in any power-outage lasting more than a day.

    A quart-per-day-per-person of drinking water will keep you alive, but a gallon per day is more realistic, especially in your warm-weather scenario here.

    Power outages often disable the electric pumps running your municipal water system… extra water lets you manually flush your toilet. Otherwise, basic sanitation quickly becomes a very big problem in a house/apartment.

    Extra water for a simple sponge/bucket bath is almost a necessity after a couple of summer days. Here in Florida, frequent experience with Hurricanes teaches you what’s ‘really’ important when the power goes out for many days.

    _______

    Refrigeration & ice-boxes are a luxury… and low priority. Most American homes have enough edible foodstuffs laying around to easily last a week. Healthy adults can function OK for several days with no food at all. Average home refrigerators will keep their contents cool for 24-48 hours; frozen food will defrost, but that helps keep the rest of the fridge cool. {… few people have xtra room in their freezers for: ” ten or more two liter bottles or half gallon milk containers filled with water”}

    Generators are more hassle than they’re worth for short-term power outages. Unless you know what you’re doing, operating them & storing enough gasoline presents significant usage & safety problems. Most people can get by with just a flashlight/candle for a couple of days. TV/PC’s/Cellphones can wait ’til the power comes back on. You’ve got a nice radio & big battery in your car… if you want to listen to the weather/news report. Regular telephones usually work because they use independent DC electric power from the phone company wires.

    Unless you have a big backyard & shovel — keep a jug or two of Clorox bleach and some heavy duty plastic trash bags… as a basic toilet option. Local sewers can back-up and be unusable– because they also usually rely on electric pumps to keep things moving thru the sewer pipes.

    Relax, your great-grandparents would laugh at the things we pampered Americans consider daily necessities.

  10. 10
    DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad Says:

    Great post. So many people take the electric power for granted. Great tips. The sad thing is they require you think, plan, and do some things ahead of the need. Most folks don’t act until it is too late.

  11. 11
    Ron@TheWisdomJournal Says:

    Having gone 10 days without power in an all electric home, I can attest to the need for a generator. It was winter and the night-time temps were in the single digits. The nearest hotel was a three hour drive away.

    Maybe you don’t think I need one in Pensacola, but in my neck of the woods, it was a life saver. “Knowing what you’re doing” is as simple as operating a basic lawnmower so long as you don’t overload the circuits, and most have circuit breakers these days so you can’t overload them.

    I spent $1,000 on my 6,500 watt beauty. Today it sits in my garage with Stabil in its tank and a trickle charger on its battery (push button starter). Glad to have it.

  12. 12
    Phinance Says:

    Great article, it pays to be prepared. Also be sure to save lots of water for emergency situations. You could always just dip into the supply and refill every weekend, while leaving yourself a nice amount for emergencies.

  13. 13
    threadbndr Says:

    Ditto the water. I always have a (rotating) couple of gallons of water in the fridge.

    Your freezer actually works better if is fuller, so there is probably room for several gallons/2 liters of frozen water for your ice box source unless you have just stocked up a side of beef or something.

    Chest freezers are better for this than uprights. The bottom layer of my chest freezer has several gallons of water jugs – swaped out whenever I defrost. Keeps the food up where I can reach it, acts as the ‘emergecy cooling’ if the power goes out and is a secondary source of drinking water in the event of a power outage more than a couple of days.

    Hand fans (like the old timey ones you used to get in church) are a godsend for a summer power outage. A cord of wood for the winter *G* – watch the ashes – a co-worker had a house fire when some ‘live’ ashes were dumped in the trash can! Lampoil and old fashioned lamps are safer than candles – learn how to trim the wicks.

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