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What Could Happen in a Long-Term Power Outage?

Updated on February 4, 2017
Sherry Hewins profile image

I have lived, all over the beautiful and diverse state of California. Beaches, mountains, desert and redwoods, California has it all!

It's Not Just the Lights that go Out

When people think of the power going out the first things that usually come to mind are TV, lights, computer and internet. A typical response is "I can read a book, play board games, it would not bother me too much."

If you are in that situation right now, skip to the bottom of this article to the "How to Deal With a Power Outage" section for some practical advice on how to get by until the power comes back on.

Our Society is Dependent upon Electricity

The truth is, we rely on electricity much more than we realize. Even if you live "off the grid," as I did for years, you are still living in a world and a society that is deeply dependent upon electricity.

If the power is out for a few hours, we have all experienced that; of course you'll be fine. Maybe you will be a little bored and inconvenienced, but if the outage is lengthy and widespread, the consequences can be much more severe, even deadly. What would happen if the electricity was out for a week?

Past Power Failures - It Happened There and it Can Happen Here

Northwest US and Canada -
August 14, 2003

On August 14, 2003, the electricity went out in a large swath of the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada.

The blackout affected the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, Michigan, Ohio and Massachusetts. About 50 million people were without electricity, some for as long as two days. Eleven deaths are attributed to the outage, and it is estimated to have cost 6 million dollars.

Federal authorities ruled terrorism out almost immediately, but took longer to figure out what had caused the problem. The verdict - hot power lines sagged into trees and switched off, causing other lines to carry the extra burden. They couldn't handle the load and tripped a cascade of failures. Systems that should have given an earlier warning of the growing problem failed. The US – Canada Power System Outage Task Force concluded, after a 3-month investigation, that a combination of equipment failure and human error was to blame.

San Diego - Sept 8, 2011

A major power outage on September 8, 2011 left 5 million people without electricity from the west coast, east to Arizona, and from Mexico north to Orange County, California. The outage lasted for up to 15 hours. The National University System Institute for Policy Research estimated the economic impact of the power outage to be between $97 million and $118 million.

Although the Arizona power company said the outage appeared to have been associated with an employee replacing a capacitor at the North Gila substation near Yuma, why this routine task would cause a failure was unknown. Whatever the reason, had the system performed as it should have, the outage would have been confined to the Yuma area. So it appears that it was possible a combination of human error and equipment failure.

What Happens if the Power Grid Fails?

Last winter we had a little taste of what widespread power outages would be like. Here in my little foothills town, we had unusually heavy snowfall. Over the course of the winter, the total days without power came to more than 20, with one outage lasting for 8 days.

Since we are on a well with an electric pump, if the power is out the water is out. People who live in town and are on city water didn't have that problem, but many municipal water systems are automated. If the power is out long enough even the city folks will run out of water. Many homes are all electric, so as soon at the lights are out they have no heat, no hot water and they can't cook.

Some well-prepared people who live in areas where there are frequent power outages have generators. However, most generators run on diesel fuel or gasoline. If the power is out, gas stations can't pump gas. Once they run out of gas, they will be in the dark too. If you have a battery-operated radio, you might be able to get some news, but if the grid goes down you probably won't be able to get a station.

If you have a landline phone, it might work, but your cordless phone won't. If you don't have an old-fashioned phone to plug into the wall you're out of luck. And, while your cell phone will not go out immediately, the circuits will soon be overloaded with panicked callers, service will get more and more spotty, until the central switching facility finally runs out of power backup, and it goes completely dead.

Refrigeration

It is bad enough when all the food in your refrigerator and freezer have spoiled, what about when the same thing happens at the local Safeway? The store has probably been closed the whole time anyway, because their scanners don't work. Even if you could find a store open, if you don't have cash what are you going to do for money? ATM machines won't be working; maybe they'll take a check.

Emergency Services

Traffic lights will go out too. That's not too much of a problem in a small town, but in a big city it could be a major calamity.

Communications for police and fire departments can be compromised. Without their phones and internet they are forced to rely on their car radios. When a whole city loses power, authorities usually close the airport. If your city has electric trolleys and trains those will not be running.

Cities Run on Electricity

Modern high-rise buildings depend on electricity to keep them habitable. Many don't even have windows that open, so without mechanical ventilation and air conditioning they will soon become unbearable. Then there is that classic situation of people stuck in elevators.

Another problem in large cities is looting; it is almost inevitable in these situations. A lengthy power outage can have a huge economic impact too. It is impossible for modern commerce to continue without their computers and phones.

All of those are bad things, but it could get much worse.

Nuclear Power Plants Need Electricity for Cooling

There are 104 nuclear power plants in the US. In the event of a power outage, nuclear power plants automatically shut down and the backup generators kick on. In the US, nuclear power plants are required by federal law to have redundant safety systems. They have at least two gigantic generators to take over the job of cooling the reactor.

Spent rods also need to be kept cool and contained. But again, the generators require fuel, it will have to be trucked in to keep the cooling system going. If the core is allowed to overheat, it could cause a nuclear meltdown. If the spent rods overheat, they can cause explosions and fires. If the containment structure of the plant is damaged radiation will leak out into the environment.

The lack of electricity is what caused the biggest problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex after the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11, 2011. The long-term effects of that disaster are still not fully understood. These systems in the US, and most of the world, have usually functioned extremely well so far. However, in a situation where the generators are damaged, and the roads impassable, the results can be devastating. I don't want to be too much of an alarmist, these plants are designed to be very safe, but they are also designed to function in a world that has electricity.

How to Deal With a Power Outage - Make the Most of What You Have

Keeping Food Cold

When we were out of power for up to 8 days at a time, I took all the dairy products and meat out of the refrigerator, and put them in a big plastic tub with a lid and set it outside in the snow. That kept it very cold. I also filled two big stockpots with snow, packed in as tight as I could get it, and put them in the refrigerator to keep vegetables and other things cold. It worked pretty well.

Keeping Things Clean

We have propane for heat and cooking, I kept some big pots of water warming on the stove for dishes and washing up. It is easier to keep thing clean if you don't let it pile up. We even got desperate enough that we filled the bathtub with water heated on the stove for baths.

Catch Drip Water for Household Use

If you have snow or rain you can catch the run off for washing or flushing toilets
If you have snow or rain you can catch the run off for washing or flushing toilets

Life Goes On When the Lights Go Out

When you have no TV or Internet, you find other things to occupy yourself. Keeping my 55-gallon fish tank was a concern for me. It made it easier that it was in the same room as our back up propane wall heater.

Each day I took a couple of gallons of water out of the aquarium and warmed it on the stove, then put it back in. Still, they are tropical fish, they needed extra heat, so I wrapped a wire around the top of an emergency candle (it’s in a glass with a raised rim at the top.) I duct taped the wire to the side of the aquarium to keep the candle from floating away.

The fish seemed to enjoy the light and it slowed the cooling some. Anyone who tries this it is very important that the candle does not get under the hood of the aquarium or it could start a fire, and wait until you have the candle in place before you light it or the hot glass will break when it hits the colder water. In fact, disclaimer here, use at your own risk!

My Candle Powered Fish Tank Heater

Candle fish tank heater
Candle fish tank heater

Summertime Power Outage

We had the power go out for about 12 hours one night in June. I had solar powered garden lights outside. I pulled some of them off the stakes, brought them indoors, and set them on their tops in each room of the house.

They don't make a very bright light, but at least you can see where you're going, and you don't have to worry about leaving a candle burning.

Solar lamp used for emergency light
Solar lamp used for emergency light

Some Emergency Supplies

Emergency supplies for power outage
Emergency supplies for power outage

The candles in glass burn for a long time (like 12 hours), I got them at the Dollar Store. The little red lantern thing is a liquid candle, they burn for 50 hours each, but are somewhat hard to find. You can get them on at Amazon. I prefer the ones with plastic shades, like the ones in the photo. I feel like they are safer than the ones with just a naked flame.

Be Prepared for a Blackout

Keep some emergency supplies around; you never know when you'll be left in the dark. Here are a few ideas.

  • Flashlights
  • A good supply of fresh batteries
  • Candles (long burning ones, in glass)
  • Lighters and/or matches
  • Propane or kerosene lanterns with fuel
  • Fuel for your generator if you have one
  • An old-fashioned phone that plugs in to the wall
  • Car charger for your phones and mobile devices
  • Water - I keep at least 5 gallons in a container in the garage
  • Battery powered radio
  • Canned and dry food enough for several days at least (that's bare
    minimum really, the more you have the longer you can hole up at home)
  • Food for your pets or other animals

If you put your candle or lantern in front of a mirror, you can almost double the amount of light you get from it.

There is not a lot we, as individuals, can do about keeping the power grid safe. However, we can make sure that we are as prepared as we can be for a loss of electricity at our own homes. Making sure you have the bare essentials on hand will make your family safer and more comfortable in a power outage.

© 2012 Sherry Hewins

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    • jesimpki profile image

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      I love the idea of the candle powered fish tank heater! That's a very resourceful method of keeping an aquarium warm.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Thanks jesimpki, I appreciate your comment. I was really stressed about my fish getting cold, and I didn't lose any of them in spite of the long power outage. Between that and keeping up with dealing with the food and water situation I was kept pretty busy.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 5 years ago from California

      Interesting hub. Good ideas. The fish tank warmer was brilliant. When traveling I always take a wind-up flash light. It has a charger for a cell phone, but I don't have an adapter.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      A wind-up flashlight is a good start. I've seen wind-up ones with the flashlight, radio and cell phone charger all in one. Let's face it, once the power comes back on most of us forget about getting prepared for next time. Thanks for reading and commenting tirelesstraveler.

    • noturningback profile image

      noturningback 5 years ago from Edgewater, MD. USA

      Power was out for a five days here in Maryland a while back, read and read some more, talked and talked some more.

      It was a great opportunity to interact with each other more frequently. I say kill the power again at least once per year save $ and save a family at the same time!

      Thanks for the thought. ?

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Thanks for the comment noturningback. You could always trip the breaker.

    • profile image

      Freva Dossman 5 years ago

      My power was out a lot last year too. It was an adventure the first time it was out for a week, but by the third time it was getting pretty old.

    • Injured lamb profile image

      Injured lamb 5 years ago

      Thanks Sherry, you are so kind to share this with us especially the preparation for a blackout. Yesterday, my area did have a blackout for about 5 hours long, and you know the rest...luckily, I did keep the birthday used candles...yes, one of the ideas you shared...voted this useful! Cheers!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Thanks for the comment. I'm glad your lights are back on, I hope they stay that way. So far this winter we haven't had any power outages. It was bad enough my internet went out for 12 hours.

    • BobbiRant profile image

      BobbiRant 5 years ago from New York

      So many people would curl up and resign to the fact the umbilical cord to the power company was severed. Great hub!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I agree, my mom was a great example. She went to bed and waited for "life to resume." Thanks for the comment.

    • MissKatieLynne profile image

      Katrina 5 years ago from New Hampshire

      Here in New England, we constantly get power outages, especially since we seem to experience every type of weather possible. This past Halloween, we were out for about 3 days due to a freak snowstorm, which is nothing compared to many being out for a week or two. Back in 2009, my family and I were out for over a week after the "ice storm" hit us.

      Living in New England your whole life certainly gives you experience, so of course we had a generator, and have had it for at least 15 years. It's enough to keep the fridge cold, the microwave going (we cooked a turkey in it, once!) and the toilet flushing (though, no lights in the bathroom!) We have the tv hooked up as well, and a light in the living room - just enough for the necessities. And it's done wonders for us. It's hard to believe there are New Englanders without a generator! It just seems as natural as having a toilet in your house! I guess you can say my family and I are always prepared for anything!

      I saw this hub advertised on Facebook, and I was certainly relating to it! I may just have to post one myself about my own power outage experiences. Great article, thanks for sharing!

    • mrshadyside1 profile image

      mrshadyside1 5 years ago from Georgia

      Very well written!

      Here in Georgia we usually lose power about twice a year,we have a lot of freezing rain in winter,and the heavy thunderstorms in the spring.All of my life.that I can remember,we have kept oil lamps and propane for back-up heat along with wood for the fireplace.Country folk can survive and all.

      As you stated in your excellent hub the economic loss and public services are at the most risk.The infra-structure of the U.S.is sagging from age and is working above the capacities it was design to handle.Scientists have warned the federal government that everything from satellites to the power grid should be re-enforced and backed up with fail safes due to solar flares and storms.

      I enjoyed your hub,it is very informative and inspires thought.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Thank you MissKatieLynn, it sounds like you are well prepared. I really appreciate you reading and commenting.

      mrshadyside1, you're right, country folks seem to weather these things better, I know San Diego had a really hard time being without power for just 12 hours. Thanks so much for your comment.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 5 years ago from Southern California

      Sherry

      Interest subject and interesting hub.

      Here in Southern California we have been pretty lucky on not having any real blackouts. But when Grey Davis was Governor we had a real problem.

      I do believe that with ten million electricity hungry people here we need to have a better plan.

      For here solar panels are a good deal because of the amount of sunlight that we get here. It is not a nationwide solution, but it helps.

      The country is not being proactive with energy and water.

      They could do better but they say it is too expensive, well it won't be any cheaper tomorrow.

      Thanks

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Thanks for commenting ib radmasters I suspect your are right about needing a better plan, that power outage San Diego had last year was a good example of how the system can fail.

    • Trsmd profile image

      Trsmd 5 years ago from India

      Sherry, I felt that at least some awareness came to the mind of people about the power of electricity. In modern days, our entire activity from toilet to bed is surrounded by electricity only, when there is now power, everything will be hampered. But in India, most of the states suffering from acute power, and daily compulsorily 5-6 hours power cut announced, they have accustomed to live with proper planning. Thanks for sharing:)

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I know what you mean Trsmd. As I briefly mentioned in my hub, I lived "off the grid" meaning no electricity at all for 10 years. It can be quite easily done when you have things set up that way.

    • landscapeartist profile image

      Roberta McIlroy 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Here in Ontario, we lost power for 2 weeks during the ice storm of '98/ My family and I lived in Kingston at that time and authorities were shipping people to the schools to stay during the power outage. We, on the other could not go because that very morning our dog had her first litter of puppies. We could not move them that soon and especially to a crowded auditorium.

      So, we grabbed as many quilts as we could and covered the windows. We brought in our kerosene heater and camping equipment. We used emergency candles for light. Neighbours came with supplies, and stayed with us. With everyone banding together to live in one unit like we did, we were never in short supply of food, water, or heat. We kept out of our fridges and freezers as much as we could, which allowed the food to stay colder longer. When someones food started to thaw out, we put it all together in a stew. It fed everyone on our block. The total of people that remained in their home on our block was about 20 to 25.

      It is easy to live that way.

      When we were kids, my mom would carry pails of water from a nearby stream to our home everyday for 4 years straight. We had no running water, no facilities, and only a wood stove to heat the house. She chopped wood every day to keep us warm and dry.

    • putnut profile image

      putnut 5 years ago from Central Illinois or wherever else I am at the moment.

      ours went out for only 22 hours, but it was a change, to say the least. Thankfully, we heat with wood, but my outside unit has a blower, so I got a power inverter and hooked it up to the pickup to get us by, and we didn't freeze.

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