How to Prepare for a Power Outage

[Last updated: Aug 2020]

As hurricane season approaches, I thought I’d share my personal checklist for preparing for the power outage that often accompanies a big storm. This isn’t just for hurricanes, though. It can apply to snow or ice storms, too. These are storms where you have at least a few days to prepare and may lose power for an extended period of time.

Planning Ahead: Preparing for a Big Storm

Ideally, you should do the things in this section well before a storm – like before it even exists. Once the local weather forecaster says there’s a big storm a-comin’, people will immediately start buying up supplies like the ones I’m about to recommend. So the ideal time to purchase these items is before you (and all your neighbors) need them.

Staying Connected

Communications can be critical during events like this: to get updates on the storm and relief efforts, to get information from local authorities, and to check in with loved ones both in and outside the affected area.

Regular landline telephone service (if you still have it) doesn’t require power from your house. The power comes from the phone line itself, which is powered by the phone company. Phone company power is extremely reliable, even in power outages. Most traditional phone companies have massive diesel generators as well as entire rooms full of lead acid batteries.

However, many people have cut those cords in favor of digital phone services through your Internet provider or VoIP services like Vonage and Magic Jack. Digital phone services are powered by a box or “adapter” in your house. When the power goes out, the phone power goes out, too. On top of that, these services require Internet service, which (you guessed it) also requires a powered box or two: a modem and perhaps a WiFi router.

Many people have eschewed all landline phone services and only have a cell phone. Like traditional wired phone systems, cellular telephone systems generally have backup power. So as long as you have battery life in your phone, you can probably get cell phone service. However, cellular services are more easily overwhelmed during events like these. So plan to use text messaging most of the time and only make calls when you absolutely have to (so that other people in true danger can get through to 911).

Finally, you might want to consider getting yourself a small, battery-powered TV – or at least a radio. This Midland emergency radio is a popular model. (I looked for a good portable TV, but honestly most of them look pretty crappy.)

Stockpiling Electricity

Staying connected today comes down to one key resource: electricity. Luckily, there are at least three ways you can stockpile electrons: a generator, an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS), and a portable battery charger.

Generator

If you want to prepare for an extended loss of power, your best choice is a generator. However, gas-powered generators require fuel and need regular maintenance. Gas generators can’t be used indoors, either, due to fumes – so you’ll need to run them outdoors and run long cords into your house.  You could look into a natural gas generator, but they’re extremely expensive (thousands of dollars).

However, you can now buy some pretty powerful Lithium Ion “generators”, sometimes called a “power station”. They’re more expensive, but much more compact, don’t require gas to run, can be used indoors, and will hold a charge for a many months. The EcoFlow Delta 1300 gets really good reviews, but it’s $1400, too. This Jackery Explorer 1000 is popular and not quite as expensive. They make a whole line of these at different price levels and amount of power.

UPS

A UPS is a glorified car battery that plugs into the wall and provides AC power for a limited period of time when the power goes out. It sits there like a big surge protector until the power is cut off, and then the battery provides power to the things that are plugged into it for as long as it can. UPS’s are rated based on Volt-Amps or VA. Generally speaking, the larger the VA number, the longer it will last. Note also that the more stuff you have plugged into it, the faster the power will drain. So only use the UPS to power absolutely essential things. For this purpose, I would get the biggest you can afford. I like the CyberPower 1000VA and the bigger CyberPower 1500VA models – I have one of each. (If you have a CPAP machine or other medical device that needs electricity, you might want a UPS dedicated for this one purpose.)

Portable Charger

Because we have so many portable electronic devices, we’re constantly in need of charging them. Portable device chargers have become extremely popular and you may already own a small one to get a few more hours’ use out of your cell phone. But when you’re looking at potentially days without power, you should look at something bigger. If you can’t afford one of the massive “generators” above, you should look at some of the bigger battery packs – something 10,000 mAh or bigger. I personally like Anker and RAVpower products, like this or this. These products seem to go on sale all the time on Amazon, so keep an eye out for that.

Flashlights and Laterns

LED flashlights and lanterns are awesome. They’re lightweight and don’t require much power. They can be very compact and extremely bright. There are a ton of good options out there, too. Here’s a good lantern and good flashlight.

A Note on Protecting Computers

Laptops have built-in batteries, so they’re already storm-ready, so to speak. But you can also use a desktop computer during a power outage by connecting it to a UPS, albeit for a much shorter time (think 10-30 minutes). Desktop computers need monitors, and both devices suck a lot of juice. However, there’s another good reason for plugging a desktop computer into a UPS: it will allow the computer to gracefully shut down. Yanking the power from a running computer can cause all sorts of problems including data corruption. Most UPS’s have a USB connection that will allow the UPS to tell your computer “hey, the power is out – you should probably shut down”. And most computers have a way to automatically shut down when they get this signal, without you having to be there. For this reason, it’s great to have your desktop computer connected to a UPS.


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Your Big Storm Prep Checklist

If your local weather personality is telling you to prepare, this checklist will help you make sure your tech gadgets are prepared so you can stay connected.

Days Before the Storm

  • Print this checklist. You may not be able to get to it online if the power goes out.
  • Similarly, print out any other key info you may need from the web or your computer:
    • important contact numbers – not just family, but neighbors, doctors, utilities
    • non-emergency numbers for police and fire depts, city
    • medical and prescription information
    • key insurance policy info (car, house, etc) with agent contact info
    • other guides (see end of this article)
  • If you need to get anything done on the computer, do it now:
    • pay bills (consider setting up auto-pay)
    • transfer money
    • order prescription refills
  • If you have a UPS, make sure you plug the following things into it:
    • cable modem
    • WiFi router
    • digital phone adapter, if you have one (Vonage, MagicJack, Ooma, cable company’s box, etc)
    • CPAP or other medical devices
  • Make sure you have fresh batteries for flashlights or electric lanterns.
  • If you have a smartphone, ask your cell phone provider about the WiFi hotspot feature, which would allow your phone to provide WiFi to other devices if you lose your regular Internet service. This may cost more money and/or require a change of data plan.
  • Add “ICE” (in case of emergency) info to your smartphone (instructions here).
  • If you have a gas generator, get gas. (Fill up your car, too.)

Several Hours Before the Storm

  • Charge all of your devices to 100% and leave them on the charger as much as possible. This includes:
    • Cell phones
    • Laptops
    • Tablets
    • Flashlights or lanterns with built-in batteries
    • Portable radios/TVs with built-in batteries
    • Rechargeable batteries
  • If you have portable battery chargers or Lithium Ion generators, charge those up to 100%.
  • You may want to unplug other electronic devices like TVs and AV equipment, unless they’re connected via a surge suppressor. (The power flickers could damage them.)
  • Let friends and family outside the area know that you may be losing power – set up a system for checking in with them.

During the Storm

  • Keep everything charging while you can – you never know when you’ll lose power. (Make sure your chargers are connected to a surge suppressor, to be safe.) Leave chargers plugged in even when power is out, too – power can return for short periods of time, including while you’re sleeping.
  • Your cell phone is probably your single most important device in times like this because it’s so versatile and doesn’t require much power. Keep it charged and keep it near you at all times.
  • When the power goes out, turn off your desktop computer so that it doesn’t drain the UPS of valuable juice. If you need to send a quick email or something, do it and then shut it off.
  • I would power down your laptops, too – only turn them on when needed to preserve the battery life.
  • If your cable modem and WiFi router are connected to a UPS or generator, you will hopefully maintain Internet access.
  • If you have digital phone service and your phone adapter box is connected to a UPS or generator, you will hopefully maintain phone service.
  • If your cell phone plan includes the “WiFi hotspot” feature, you can use it to provide WiFi service to other devices like tablets and laptops if your regular Internet service is out.
  • Remember that your car has a battery, too – you can charge your phone there, if you’re desperate. (Just don’t sit in the garage with the door closed and the car running.)
  • Also, you can use a laptop to recharge a phone, as well.
  • Let friends/family know that you’ve lost power. Check in regularly if the weather is severe.

After the Storm

  • When power returns, get everything charging again – sometimes power will go out again, so use it while you can.
  • Let friends and family know that power has been restored.
  • Note all the things you wish you had during this storm and make a prioritized shopping list for next time.

Other Resources

If you really want to be super-prepared, check out this Family Emergency Binder for tons of other ideas. This includes doing a home inventory, in the event your entire home is damaged (fire, flood, tornado, etc). This can be as simple and making a video walking slowly through your house, opening all the doors and cabinets. Wirecutter has a nice list of emergency supplies.

There are several other sites you should probably look at for regular storm prep (food, meds, etc). Again, consider printing these off before the storm hits.

Hurricanes

Winter Storms

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