prepare for a power outage
Keep your home warm and well-lit when the grid goes down
Portable power devices that will keep the lights on are affordable and easy to deploy!
Prepare for a power outage – published on May 31, 2021
The key factors when you prepare for a power outage:
- More states are planning on using rolling blackouts for wildfire mitigation.
- Extreme weather makes homes unlivable without heat or cooling.
- Preparations are the key to keeping your home livable.
Stay with us as we lay out what the power grid consists of and then we’ll get right into how to prepare for a power outage. We are going to keep things easy to understand and have affordable solutions to help you keep the lights on when the grid goes down.
The power grid
The power grid consists of power generation plants, transmission lines, and distribution lines. The major types of electrical power generation plants are hydro, nuclear, coal, natural gas, wind, and solar.
Power generation versus consumption
The generation of electrical power must match the consumption. The North American power grid delivers alternating power at nominal 60 hertz. This means the polarity of the current (positive and negative) switches 60 times every second. Positive becomes Negative and vice versa. If too much power is generated, this polarity switching increases in frequency. If too little power is being generated, this polarity switching decreases in frequency. The tolerance for deviation from 60 hertz is a very small range – plus or minus 0.05 hertz. The generation to consumption balance must be maintained or automatic fail-safes kick in to prevent cascading failures and protect the grid.
For planning purposes, electrical power generation is broken down into base loads and peak loads. The base load is the minimum amount of electrical demand needed over a 24 hour time period. The peak load is a shorter period when electricity is in high demand – like hot summer afternoons. Base load power generation sources like coal and nuclear cannot be rapidly scaled up or down, but they reliably generate consistent power even through most severe weather events.
Dispatchable power generation sources like hydroelectric and natural gas can be rapidly scaled up or down to match short term demands in power.
Intermittent power generation sources like wind and solar only supply power during certain times that are determined by the weather. The sun must shine and the wind must blow. Because of this, they cannot be considered either base or dispatchable power supplies. Grid operators need to have both base load sources and dispatchable sources in order to reliably delivery electricity.
Transmission and distribution
Once the power is generated, it must be delivered to the consumer. Transmission lines are designed to transmit large amounts of energy over vast distances. Distribution lines are the final stage of the grid which distributes electricity to residential and commercial end users.
When things suddenly go dark
What causes power outages?
- Natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, and coronal mass ejections
- Power plants going down like the Three Mile Island accident
- Terrorism like arson, cyberattacks, and electromagnetic pulse weapons
- Public safety power shutoffs (planned outages) to reduce consumption during limited power availability or high fire danger
Things are starting to heat up out here in the west:
Checking on California’s power grid usage and forecast demand became second nature to many residents last year after the state, roiled by soaring temperatures and deadly wildfires, temporarily shut off power for hundreds of thousands of people during the height of summer. With extreme heat expected this summer, the state’s energy regulator warns that more blackouts may be coming despite better statewide preparation.
The Oregon Public Utility Commission has approved a set of temporary rules for the upcoming 2021 wildfire season, including controlled blackouts.
Power from the electrical grid is a resource that consumers do not control. We should plan accordingly and prepare for a power outage.
Avoiding structural fires and carbon monoxide poisoning
These are the Top Safety Tips for a Blackout (PDF) from the American Red Cross
- Only use a flashlight for emergency lighting. Never use candles!
- Turn off electrical equipment you were using when the power went out.
- Avoid opening the refrigerator and freezer.
- Do not run a generator inside a home or garage.
- If you use a generator, connect the equipment you want to power directly to the outlets on the generator. Do not connect a generator to a home’s electrical system.
- Listen to local radio and television for updated information.
These tips are legit. They will help you avoid unintended negative consequences like carbon monoxide poisoning or structural fires.
During a power outage, the extreme temperatures in both winter and summer have their challenges.
Winter power outages
These are usually caused by snowstorms that physically impact the power grid. Heating your home becomes an issue, but food preservation is relatively easy. The author of this article had a recent nine day power outage in winter that was complicated by heavy snow with trees and power lines down across roads. The roads were impassible for the first five days. The two chest freezers in the garage stayed ice cold. The food in the refrigerator was placed in coolers and stored outside. A wood stove provided heat and a deep cycle battery charged from a portable generator provided light. We were snowed-in without power, but everyone was warm and well fed. Because we prepared for a power outage, it turned into an unplanned vacation at home.
Summer power outages
These can require more electricity to ensure that the home stays cool and the freezers stay frozen. But you are more likely to have mobility outside of your home. Even if the gas stations and stores are closed due to the outage, you usually have the ability to move people and supplies by vehicle on the roads. But you still must prepare your space and invest in the equipment and supplies you will need.
In areas with excessive heat and no air conditioning, you should cook outside on a camp stove or a barbecue grill. Most places will have a fire season that prohibits outdoor fires. Always have a fire extinguisher close hand.
Preparation is the key
The nine day power outage noted above came without warning. The meteorologists did not see it coming and there were only a few inches of snow in the forecast. There ended up being 18 inches in the first three days. The roads were impassible with downed trees and a heavy snow load. These kinds of events require preparation. You either have what you need in your home or you go without.
Power generation at home
There is a dividing line between homes that can run a generator without attracting unwanted attention and those that cannot have the noise signature of it in their neighborhood. It can attract attention from opportunists without a strong moral code or nosy neighbors that are jealous of your comfort. Be sure and see our article on neighborhood relations: Trust Your Neighbors?
Backup power WITHOUT a generator
Your two primary options for home power generation are using a portable solar panel or a vehicle. Ideally, have both.
Portable solar panels require a controller to provide the proper voltage. Solar power generators are power stations with a solar controller. Many of them come with solar panels. We have a recommendation below for one that we’ve used and liked.
Running a car to charge a cell phone is extremely inefficient. Having a way to store energy while the car is running will dramatically increase the efficiency. But even the smallest four cylinder car engine is overkill to charge a deep cycle battery because you are getting at least 60 amps out of the alternator. A deep cycle battery will only take up to about half of that in the bulk stage. Even small cars will only idle for about 30 to 40 hours on a full tank.
Another option is to use a high capacity power inverter to power large appliances directly from your vehicle’s battery. These work well, but they need to be connected directly to the terminals of your battery. They pull too much current to plug into a 12 volt cigarette lighter port. An easy way to quickly deploy an inverter is to swap out the cables that come with it for cables with battery clips. You need to know the output of the alternator in your vehicle. This spec will be in the manual for the vehicle. Aftermarket alternators go up to 165 amps and we’ll need this output to run a large appliance. There are direct links to these items at Amazon in the recommended equipment list at the end of this article.
This is a way of temporarily powering a major appliance like a freezer when you cannot have generator noise in your neighborhood during a grid down summer blackout. You need store fuel for the vehicle, but an idling car will not attract nearly as much attention as a running generator. Many people will be idling their cars to charge their devices or escape the heat. Your car will just have an extension cord discretely running from under the hood into your home. This is the best portable solution to power a major appliance like a freezer if you live in a suburb and cannot have generator noise that can be heard for several blocks. It deploys fast and acoustically blends in with any neighborhood. It’s a great way to prepare for a power outage.
Add power storage
While you are running that freezer, you should also store electricity for lights and electronic devices. Storage options include a deep cycle battery with a smart charger (what we use) or a portable power station/solar power generator.
The battery and charger cost substantially less than the solar generator, but it will only provide 12 volt DC power unless you add a power inverter. The battery should be a 100 amp hour (Ah) deep cycle, either gel cell (GEL), adsorbent glass mat (AGM), or lithium iron phosphate (lithium). All of these maintenance free deep cycle batteries are designed to endure many discharge/recharge cycles without being damaged like an automotive battery can be. Car starting batteries are designed to be taken down to just 90% of their capacity before being recharged. You should also avoid marine batteries and stick with maintenance-free sealed GEL, AGM, or lithium deep cycle. Marine batteries are designed to both start a large gasoline outboard motor and also run a small electric trolling motor. They split the difference between car starting batteries and deep cycling power draws. We want the most discharge/recharge cycles we can get – deep cycle. Starting batteries are rated in cold cranking amps (CCA). Deep cycle batteries are rated in amp-hours (Ah).
We used this 100 Ah deep cycle GEL battery, this smart charger, and a three socket 12 volt DC outlet in our home during the nine day power outage. We had a portable gasoline generator to power the battery charger each day. The battery was used for LED lighting, charging electronic devices, and (most importantly) a coffee grinder. You will need the power inverter to run small kitchen appliances. There are direct links to these items at Amazon in the recommended equipment list at the end of this article.
Another option is a solar power generator. This is a portable power station with a built in solar panel controller. It can be a complete plug and play solution that will maintain full charge from a normal 120 volt outlet when the power is on. When the grid goes down, it can be charged from portable solar panels or a 12 volt cigarette lighter outlet in your car. These devices are more expensive than a deep cycle battery, but they are easier to set up.
Full disclosure: as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. The convenient links below will take you directly to the items on Amazon and help support this website. Thank you!
This system has 83 amp hours (Ah) of storage capacity versus the 100 Ah of the AGM deep cycle battery shown up above. But there is more usable storage because it features lithium batteries that can safely be taken down to 25% capacity before recharging (83 Ah – 75% = 62.5 usable Ah). AGM deep cycle batteries like the one above should only be taken down to 50% of their total capacity (100 Ah – 50% = 50 usable Ah). Lithium batteries will give you 1.5 times the usable storage for about 3 times the price of an AGM battery. They also have a longer cycle life.
Backup power from a portable generator
A generator is significantly more efficient at charging deep cycle batteries than your vehicle. The power storage options shown above should still be considered even if you have a generator. They will keep you from having to run it every time you need power. Even if your neighborhood is cool with generator noise, it’s still loud and annoying next to your home so a battery will keep things quieter. Also, you are able to run large appliances like your refrigerator and freezer. A portable generator is a great way to prepare for a power outage.
Most people have portable generators and those are what we are going to discuss here. There are also whole-house generators that are permanently installed and have a transfer switch to shut off the grid and provide power from the generator. These large systems need to be installed by licensed electrician. Even if you have one of these, a smaller portable generator is a good backup – especially if you must evacuate for a natural disaster. Wherever you end up may not have power.
The most crucial thing to understand about generators is how much power they will produce. It must be sufficient for your anticipated load. They are rated in watts or kilowatts. 1,000 watts = 1 kilowatt (Kw). Most generators have the wattage built into their part number. For instance, this WEN 56235i Super Quiet Portable Inverter Generator produces up to 2,350 watts of AC electrical power (surge) and 1,900 watts (continuous). When you start up anything with an electric motor like a freezer or a coffee grinder, they need a surge in electricity. Once the motors are turning and have momentum, their power draw goes down. Generators are usually rated in both surge and continuous load capacity.
Notice that the description of that generator has the word “inverter” in it. Inverter generators are inherently more efficient than normal generators because they automatically adjust the speed of the engine to the electrical load being drawn. Less load = less fuel consumed = more run time and greater efficiency.
What can we do with the 1,900 continuous watts of 120 volt AC power put out by this generator? Most home electrical outlets in America have 15 amp breakers. That means that the breaker will trip and cut off power if the draw goes beyond 15 amps. Electrical components and wires are rated in amps as amps are the measure of electrons flowing through the components.
Volts times amps equals watts (V x A = W) and conversely watts divided by volts equals amps (W / V = A). We know we have 1,900 watts at 120 volts to work with so we will solve for the amps: 1,900 divided by 120 equals 15.8 amps. Just over what a normal American outlet can handle. Most consumer devices like coffee pots, microwaves, and window air conditioners will pull no more than 15 amps. But some will need 20 amps so always check the electrical placard on the device.
You need to size the generator to the anticipated load. If you want to run a refrigerator and a freezer at the same time, you will need 30 amps. Each one will take 15. The voltage is always 120 for consumer items so the math is: 30 amps times 120 volts equals 3,600 watts. Now add some extra capacity to charge your phones and you are in the market for about a 4,000 watt generator.
Generators can be powered by gas, diesel, propane, and/or natural gas. Hybrid generators run on two fuels like this Champion Power Equipment 76533 4750/3800-Watt Dual Fuel RV Ready Portable Generator with Electric Start that runs on either gasoline or propane. This generator will put out 4,750 watts surge when powered by gasoline and 3,800 watts when powered on propane. Portable generators are usually powered by gas and/or propane. Both kinds of fuel can be stored ahead of time. Gasoline requires an additive to extend its useful life but propane will store as long as the tank holding it does not rust through.
You will want to “break in” your generator so it works properly when you need it to. The manufacturer of the generator linked above has this one minute video on how to break it in:
With the limited capacity of deep cycle batteries and portable generators, reducing your power consumption becomes very important. LED lights and low power draw 12 volt appliances should be used whenever possible. Microwaves can be used, but keep in mind that the advertised power of a microwave is usually well under the actual power draw. For instance, a small 700 watt microwave will probably draw 1,000 watts. Every consumer appliance should have a placard that lists the power draw. It will be in watts, kilowatts, or amps and volts. They are usually on the bottom or the back:
For a general idea of how much electricity is used, this page has a list of energy use of home appliances.
Certain home medical devices are critical for both life support and comfort. They include respirators like CPAP machines, mobility devices like powered wheelchairs and scooters, oxygen pumps, and home dialysis machines. Just like home appliances, these machines have a placard that states their current type (AC or DC), their voltage, and amperage (or watts).
A deep cycle battery or a portable power station is a great way to power lights when the grid goes down. You can wire your own lights or get pre-wired solutions like this work light at Amazon: WF Magnet Light Bar, Magnetic Base, Cigarette Lighter Powered, Portable LED Flood Light
We had several of these rechargeable work lights during the snow storm that were much more useful than flashlights or headlamps. They recharge off a USB port, have three lighting levels, but do not have an annoying strobe function. There is both a hook and a magnet for mounting. They are great for lighting up seldom used rooms like bathrooms. At Amazon: WARSUN Portable LED Rechargeable Work Light,Magnetic Base & Hanging Hook, 30W 1200Lumens
Home heating in the winter
Winter power outages require a heat source inside your home. The insulation in your walls works both ways and will gladly hold the cold inside unless you bring some heat to the party. We prefer to heat our home with a wood stove year round. It’s a nice dry heat and there is always a place to warm up with “bone penetrating” radiant heat after coming in from the cold. If you cannot heat with wood, there are some options for propane that are also radiant heat but they produce water vapor as a byproduct to the combustion process. Some portable propane heaters are designed for use inside a dwelling. They automatically shut off fuel to the element if the oxygen level drops to 16 percent. But you also need a battery powered carbon monoxide alarm. At Amazon: the Portable Buddy Heater:
Home cooling in the summer
Extreme summer heat can necessitate having a backup power source for air conditioning and keeping food cold. For even small window air conditioners and upright freezers, a generator or a large inverter connected to a vehicle is required. Batteries will not power these devices for long so just like the power grid, you must generate the power as it is used. Whole house backup generators should be sized to handle the entire home energy needs. But if you have a heat pump that is hard wired into your home’s electrical supply, a portable generator will not connect to it. And, most of them do not put out 240 volt AC power. The solution is to use a room air conditioner mounted in a window. You can keep it with the generator and set it up when needed. A 30 amp (3,600 watt) generator will power both a freezer and a small air conditioner at the same time with a little juice to spare for charging your devices. Be sure to stagger the startups of large devices so the surge loads do not happen at the same time.
Another solution that can be run off of a deep cycle battery or a power station is this small evaporative cooler that is rated for up to 500 square feet. It only uses 82 watts of power (0.7 amps at 120 volts AC). The water can be filled manually or connected to a standard garden hose. At Amazon: Hessaire MC18M Portable Evaporative Cooler, 1300 CFM, Cools 500 Square Feet
Note that this is not a solution in areas that are humid in the summer, but we’ve tried it and it works very well. On a 90+ degree day, it will nicely take off the top 20 degrees in one room of your home. It’s noticeably cooler when you walk into the room and having this cool space makes going out in the heat much more bearable. It’s a great way to prepare for a power outage.
We’ve been through many power outages and have developed ways of making life much more comfortable. Along the way I’ve made some observations:
- When bathing, I would rather have a half gallon of warm water than 100 gallons of cold water.
- Water bottles and flax seed warmers will heat up a cold bed very nicely.
- The best personal light is a rechargeable work light. They will light up seldom used rooms like bathrooms, generator sheds, or laundry rooms.
- Always have backups. I’ve seen large 14 Kw generators with hundreds of gallons of diesel at hand refuse to start when needed. Portable generators are an affordable way to have multiple backup power sources.
- Food becomes very important. It’s good to have a cook in the camp to keep your tribe well fed.
- Washing clothes is incredibly easier if you do not have to wring them out by hand. A five gallon commercial salad spinner is the way to go. Set up a workstation that has it at a comfortable height to spin and never arm wrestle a pair of pants to extract the water again!
Next, see the equipment that my tribe has relied on through several power outages:
Recommended equipment list
- Charging batteries and storing electricity:
- 120 volt AC smart charger: 2/10/25A 12V Smart Battery Charger/Maintainer Fully Automatic
- Deep cycle sealed GEL battery: Weize 12V 100AH Pure Gel Deep Cycle Rechargeable Battery
- Deep cycle lithium battery: LiFePO4 Deep Cycle Battery 12V 100Ah with Built-in BMS
- Using your stored electricity:
- Battery clips to 12 volt socket: BESTEK 12V 24V Extension Cord Plug Socket with Battery Clamps
- Three socket splitter with USB ports: SUNJOYCO 100W 12V/24V 3-Socket Cigarette Lighter Splitter with Dual USB
- Power inverter for small AC appliances: BESTEK 500W Pure Sine Wave Power Inverter DC 12V to AC 110V
- Lighting your home: 12 volt flood light: WF Portable LED Flood Light, Magnetic Base, Cigarette Lighter Powered
- Motion activated rechargeable headlamp: 2 Pack of Rechargeable Headlamp, 500 Lumens White Cree LED
- Rechargeable work light: WARSUN Portable LED Rechargeable Work Light,Magnetic Base & Hanging Hook
- Portable power stations:
- Solar generator with solar panels: Jackery Solar Generator 1000, Explorer 1000 with 2X SolarSaga 100W
- Portable power station: MARBERO 167Wh Portable Power Station, 45000mAh
- 2,350 watt inverter generator: WEN 56235i Super Quiet Portable Inverter Generator
- 3,800 watt dual fuel generator: Champion 76533 4750/3800-Watt Dual Fuel Portable Generator with Electric Start
- Inverter with battery clips for fast, easy hookup to your vehicle’s battery:
- 2,000 watt inverter: Renogy 2000W 12V Pure Sine Wave Battery Converter
- Cables with battery clips: Preassembled 4 AWG 3 Foot Alligator Clamp Battery Cable Set with 5/16″ Ring Terminal
- 200 amp fuse holder for the positive cable: Baomain ANL-200A Electrical Protection ANL Fuse 200 Amp with Fuse Holder
- Spare fuses: Baomain ANL Fuse ANL-200 200 Amp 200A for Car Vehicles
Here is an aftermarket 165 amp alternator for General Motors engines. Be sure to select an alternator for your specific vehicle: Powermaster 48206 GM Cs130D Style Alternator & Generator – 165 Ampere
- Fire safety equipment that everyone should have:
- First Alert SCO5CN Combination Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector, Battery Operated
- Amerex B500, 5lb ABC Dry Chemical Class A B C Fire Extinguisher (2 pack)
Every home is like a body. You must move food and water through it and maintain the temperature in the range suitable for humans and their pets. To do this, you need to be able to quickly deploy your backup power sources. Invest in them while the grid is up and you will not sweat (or freeze) in the next blackout. Prepare for a power outage and stay safe!
Next article: The Ideal Wildfire Shelter.
At Amazon: Best Sellers in Safety and Security