How To Effectively Prepare Your Family For Power Grid Failure

power grid failure

Imagine yourself and your family, forced from your home in the dead of winter, with nothing more than the few supplies you were able to carry amongst yourselves. Then imagine being shuttered into a community center with thousands of other families, displaced from their homes as well, relying on what few supplies the government could provide.

If you live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in a first world country, this situation sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? It is not. Families, just like yours, faced this exact plight on December 20, 2013, when a massive ice storm hit parts of central Canada and the U.S., crippling many cities and leaving tens of thousands without power for days, sometimes weeks. Those who were prepared for such an event, having items such as blankets and medications to bring with them, fared much better than their ill-prepared counterparts.

In today’s modern society, we’ve come to rely almost implicitly on having a dependable source of power. When power fails, it causes utter and complete chaos for those not fortunate enough to have had the foresight to prepare.

What Is Power Grid Failure and Why Should I Care?

Of all the threats your disaster plan should consider, power grid failure is one of the more realistic and among the most likely to occur.  When a power grid fails, a substantial geographic area can be without power for hours, days, or sometimes even weeks.

In addition to the 2013 ice storm that decimated power sources to many areas of central Canada and the U.S., there have been several other power grid failures in the last decade that brought panic and chaos to areas all over the world:

  • In 2007, Indonesia suffered major grid failure due to a drop in demand that affected nearly 100 million people for over 7 hours
  • India faces ongoing grid issues due to sporadic increases in demand
  • In 2003, the Northeast Blackout at Con Edison left 55 million people in Canada and the U.S. without power; in some cases, this lasted for more than 2 days
  • In 2005, Louisiana and surrounding areas dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that left 2.6 million people without power; some for extended periods of time due to the extensive flooding that structurally damaged buildings and blocked access to power sources
power grid failure
A view of the 2003 Blackout in the Northeast

What Causes Power Grid Failure?

The two most common causes of power grid failure are system failure and equipment failure, but other events can also wreak havoc.

System Failure

The power grid system may fail due to a disruption of equilibrium in power supplied and power drawn, triggering the line to trip and cutting off the supply of power. System failure was the culprit in Indonesia’s outage as well as in the frequent outages suffered by India.

A system failure can occur at the supply-end during extreme weather changes, such as a heat wave that causes an increase in the power drawn from the system to power cooling devices, or at the supplier-end if an error occurs in regulating the power input.

Equipment Failure

An equipment failure can occur at the station, transmission line, or transformer level. Any number of factors can be the cause of an equipment failure, such as an error in the digital processing system or physical damage due to an accident, construction, or weather.

Both the 2003 Northeast Blackout and power outages during Hurricane Katrina were caused by equipment failures.

Other Causes

Power grid failure can also be the result of malicious or criminal behavior, such as cyber terrorist or infrastructure attacks against a nation or a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) designed to disable electronic equipment. In the wake of 9/11, many feared the Northeast Blackout in 2003 was in fact a terrorist attack.

Power grids can also fail due to large-scale electromagnetic storms, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), or a reversal in the Earth’s magnetic field – which can cause temporary disruptions or permanent damage to electronic devices.  Click HERE Now to see our article on preparing for an EMP.

While events such as these have the potential to completely shut down power systems for an indefinite amount of time, the likelihood of their occurrence – and the extent of ensuing damage – has been hotly debated.

power grid failure
Our grid is surprisingly fragile and the effects of a failure can be catastrophic

What Can I Expect During a Power Grid Failure?

The immediate aftermath of a power grid failure is the loss of power, which means modern day methods of communications, sanitation, lighting, cooking, refrigeration / preparation, and transportation will all be unavailable.

Within the first few days of a power outage, the disruption in supply of fuel for transportation will lead to shortages in other supplies such as food and medication. Many who wait several days before stockpiling will be greeted with empty and pillaged Supermarket shelves. Don’t rely on any emergency services – medical facilities, emergency responders, and public officials will more than likely be overwhelmed and unavailable.

If the outage continues for a week or more, civil unrest will begin to grow as food and other resources become scarce. People will no longer be able to run generators or vehicles as fuel supplies run out, and many will experience a disruption in their finances or incomes.

In the event a power outage stretches out into the long-term, such as several weeks or perhaps indefinitely, alternate means of power will need to be found along with long-term solutions to meet everyday needs.

What Will I Need to Prepare My Family?

The best thing you can have during a power grid failure is a positive attitude. Make sure to do whatever you can to encourage hopefulness and keep spirits high.

In addition to the right attitude, I recommend doing the following to properly prepare yourself and your family:

  • Create a storage space that can be easily accessed in the dark
  • Stockpile at least two-weeks worth of supplies
  • Design a plan for preparing food, sanitation, living / sleeping quarters, entertainment (especially for children), and rationing for fuel and power sources
  • Store jugs of water in the fridge now to be used during an outage to keep food from spoiling; however, once the water melts, it should be used for cleaning or flushing, not drinking
  • Store a flashlight or lantern by every bed

There are ten integral categories that should be part of every well thought out power grid failure disaster plan:

  1. Drinking Water
  2. Food
  3. Lighting
  4. Heating
  5. Communication
  6. Sanitation
  7. First Aid
  8. Protection
  9. Additional Items
  10. Backup Power Systems

The following is a detailed discussion of the key knowledge and items to have as part of your disaster plan to ensure all the above categories are accounted for.

Drinking Water

For drinking water, the general rule is that you should have 1-2 gallons per day available for each member of your household. A two-week supply of water for a family of four would mean having 56-112 gallons on hand. If you have pets, consider their needs as well; a rule of thumb is 1 ounce of water per pound of pet per day, so a 20 lbs dog would need 20 ounces a day.

You can further ensure access to clean drinking water by having a water filtration method available such as the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter or water purification packets. This will allow you to draw on water from unclean sources.

Food

When stockpiling food for your family, you’ll want to plan for three meals per day, plus some snack foods for each member of your household. Don’t forget pets – include a two-week supply of food for them as well.

Choose food items that require little to no heating and that your family is familiar with. Consider that cooking requires substantially more fuel than heating; therefore, canned foods that need only be heated are favorable to dried foods that will require boiling. Oversize cans are great if you feel your family can consume all the contents in one sitting, otherwise the leftovers will spoil in the absence of refrigeration.

A convenient option for long-term food storage is to store some MREs (Meals Ready-to-Eat) which are designed for the military use but are a popular choice for stockpiling.

You can check out our Food Storage Guide here to help you decide what the best way is for YOUR family to keep your food supply.

Other key considerations when planning your food stockpile are as follows:

  • Gas supply lines may also be affected by an outage so ensure you have an alternative means for cooking and boiling water, e.g. a camp stove, fire pit, or gas or charcoal grill
  • For any of the above, be sure to have a two-week supply of fuel on hand such as firewood, propane, or charcoal
  • Be sure to store at least two manual can openers with your food supply

power grid failure

Lighting

In a power outage, electrical lighting sources will be unavailable so be sure to have a stash of lighting sources that can run independently of electricity, e.g. flashlights, candles and headlamps, as well as the means to power or light those items such as batteries, matches and lighters.

We recommend getting a couple of Vizeri LED flashlights and/or GRDE LED Headlamps.

You should also have a lantern that is bright enough to light an entire room. Whether you choose one powered by batteries, propane, or a hand crank depends on your own personal preference.

To conserve as much power as possible, consider storing a solar battery charger set (like this solar charger here) along with multiple batteries of different sizes to accommodate all of your emergency gear. Solar garden lights and glow sticks can also be used to light up hallways and other frequently traveled areas without draining your battery power.

LUCI solar lantern review
Click on the image to see the rechargeable, solar powered lantern I keep in my blackout kit

Heating

In the case of a power outage in cold climates, conserving and maintaining heat will be key to survival. Should you find yourself in this situation, gather everyone in your household into one room and lay a towel along the bottom of the door to seal it. Do the same for any windows to limit the possibility of drafts. By lighting several candles and relying on residual and body heat, you can expect to keep the temperature comfortable for at least 48 hours. After that, you will need an alternative source of heat until the power is restored.

A fireplace or wood stove can serve as an excellent alternative source for heating. Should you have access to either, ensure your stockpiles include plenty of fuel to keep your fireplace or stove burning.  If this is how you will be warming your family, building an upside-down fire is a good way to have a long burning, self feeding fire. Learn how to make an upside-down fire here.

Another option is a portable propane space heater; however, this carries the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning without proper ventilation. No matter what heating source you choose, ensure you have a fire extinguisher available and ready should you need it.

An option for overnight heating that doesn’t involve the risk of flames or noxious fumes is to heat rocks on a fire then transfer them to a Dutch oven or other heat-safe cookware. The heat emitted from the rocks should be enough to provide heat throughout the night without compromising your safety.

In terms of gear, you will want to have blankets and low-temperature rated sleeping bags stored in an easily accessible location, so as to ensure quick retrieval even in the dark. You will also want to ensure each member of your household has enough clothing to cover them from head to toe, and enough layers so that they can add or remove clothing to regulate their temperature.

Communication

Having a hand crank radio (I recommend the Eton FRX2 Hand Crank Radio – see it here) can be invaluable in a power outage. In addition to providing important communications from the outside world, it can also be used to charge other electronic devices, such as cell phones. Keep in mind that cell phones and landlines cannot be depended on to work during power outages. It is always best to have backup methods of communication ready.

bug in plan
The Eton FRX2 is a great emergency radio that also has a flashlight and USB charging capabilities

Sanitation

Having proper sanitation protocols in place can not only help with hygiene, but also boost morale.

Here are some helpful hints for ensuring you and your family can cope with sanitation issues during a prolonged power outage:

  • Store plenty of disposable tableware to cut down on washing needs
  • Stock plenty of antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer, as these can be used without water
  • Immediately after the power goes out, fill your bathtub and, if you have one, your washing machine with water to use for flushing and washing; if you don’t have a bathtub, fill as many buckets as you can from the shower or sink
  • Find out ahead of time whether or not your toilet will flush without power – this can prevent sewage backup in your home
  • If manually flushing your toilet by pouring water into the tank is not an option, make sure to add heavy duty contractor bags and kitty litter to your stockpile – these can be used to craft a toilet by lining a bucket with the contractor bags and adding kitty litter
    • You can also purchase a toilet seat to attach to the top of the bucket (like this one here), which can be especially helpful with children who may be apprehensive about using it
    • When the bag is full, or before it becomes too heavy to lift, tie it off and store it outside
  • Keep a supply of baby wipes on hand to use in place of bathing, this will help conserve water
  • In the case of a long-term outage, you will need a means of doing laundry; consider purchasing a hand-operated mobile washer with two buckets – one for washing and one for rinsing
    • Don’t wait until you are down to your last set of clean clothes before doing laundry – remember, there are no dryers and air drying can sometimes take all night

First Aid

In the case of a power outage, you will most likely be bugging-in and therefore have access to your household first aid supplies. However, it is still prudent to have a separate store of essential items such as bandages, antibiotic ointments, tools, any over-the-counter medications your family uses, and antidiarrheal medication to help your family cope with the change in sanitary and dietary conditions.

Check out our guide for building your own First Aid Kit HERE, along with a FREE Checklist!

It is also important to remember that emergencies services will most likely be overloaded and response times could be slow or the services unavailable completely. Include a copy of The American Red Cross First Aid & Safety Handbook to help you independently deal with medical emergencies.

Protection

As a power outage drags on, people will become increasingly desperate and the need to protect yourself and your family from those who aren’t so well prepared may arise. While firearms are always a popular choice, there are other options as well. Consider reinforcing the entranceways to your home and stocking weapons such as pepper spray.

Additional Items

Any additional items you pack need to be based on your family’s particular needs. Every household is unique, so make sure to pack items because they are essential to your family, not because your neighbor is storing them or you read it was a good idea on a blog.

Typical items to include would be:

  • Prescription medications
  • Toiletries
  • Pet care
  • Diapers
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • And anything else you wouldn’t want to be without for two weeks or more.

If you have children, ensuring entertainment options are available is critical. Make sure to have items such as games, books, cards and crafts readily available. Adding some special, non-perishable treats to your food storage can also serve as a morale booster.

Backup Power Systems

Depending on your budget and location, having a backup power system for your home can be an excellent way to prepare for power grid failure.

A generator will keep the lights on until power is restored

The most popular choice as a backup power source for emergencies are gas-powered generators. The DuroStar DS4000S is an excellent choice for a gas-powered generator for your home. If you choose to get a generator, make sure it’s installed correctly and that you test it out to ensure you’re familiar with how it works.

Solar panels are a great option for homes with adequate sun exposure and can be used year-round to save on energy bills; however, they are expensive to purchase and install. As they don’t require fuel, solar panels are an excellent way to live off the grid in the long-term.

You may also want to consider the following, inexpensive alternatives:

  • A bicycle generator can be used to power small devices and appliances; some kits even include 12V battery charging attachments for creating stored power
  • A solar battery charger can provide power indefinitely for battery-operated devices
power grid failure
The blackout in NYC after Hurricane Sandy

Conclusion

As our reliance on electrical devices and appliances grows, the need to have a solid plan prepared in case of power grid failure becomes ever more pressing. As the ice storm of 2013 demonstrated, going without power for even several days can have devastating effects.

While power grid failure may be one of the more likely disaster scenarios, it is by no means any less calamitous than other scenarios. Use the advice and tips provided in this article to ensure you and your family will stand a fighting chance should you be faced with having to survive without power for a prolonged period of time.

Above all else, remember to maintain a positive attitude and that chance favors the well-prepared!

Further Reading

Your Thoughts?

What do you do to prepare your family for a power grid failure?  What do you see as the biggest challenge to getting prepared?  Let us know in the Comments Section below, thanks!

12 comments on “How To Effectively Prepare Your Family For Power Grid Failure

  1. I have a concern if there is a nationwide or even worldwide grid down situation. If the power is out for a long time, what is the situation with nuclear power plants? How long will it take for them to melt down and release radiation?

    1. Hi Laura,
      This varies from plant to plant. Most US based plants do have backups and containment to avoid a meltdown or at least minimize danger:
      “When a nuclear power plant loses off-site power, it is called a station blackout. All US nuclear power plants are designed to withstand this event with no core damage, through the automatic start of the emergency diesels. After the start of emergency power, the automatic shutdown of the plant commences. Control rods are dropped into the core, while water is pumped into the reactor to reduce the heat. The fuel is encased in a primary and secondary containment structure designed to withstand a potential core melt, should the pumps stop and fuel become uncovered.”
      From this article

  2. Very good article with sound advice. I would add one point to the water section. My family gets our water from a well and obviously without power the pump won’t work. We got a product called the Emergency Well Tube that will allow us to access our well water without electricity and without pulling the pump and pipes out of the well. The closest water source is a creek over half a mile away and runs through a cow pasture, so this well tool is a much more appealing option for us. If your readers have a well or know someone who does, they may want to look at the website, http://www.emergencywelltube.com.

  3. Super article Chris. I am about three quarters of the way there a grid down event and I made notes on the items I need to round everything out.

    The one idea I really like was heating up stones in a Dutch oven and bring the oven indoors. Haven’t heard that technique before, however, a person must make sure not use stones from a riverbed. The stones do pick up moisture over time and can become mini handgrenades with shrapnel flying everywhere. If you live in farm country prospect for stones that farmers have thrown into a pile from their fields.

    Best,

    Snake Plisken

    1. Thanks Snake! Good advice on the possibility of exploding rocks, heating them up should be done away from people. If you need to do it in your fireplace make sure the door is closed of screen in in place!

      By the way, I loved your work in the Metal Gear games and Escape From NY/LA movies!

  4. If you don’t want to make a faraday cage you can always buy one at the local thrift store for about $10. Look for an appliance called a ‘Microwave oven’.

  5. Just got onto this site, what do some of you know about the emergency food packages and generator being offered on a religious TV show. Do you think it is reliable to get these products through the ministry or from the dealers. Just asking as it is all new and frightening. He talks about this everyday.

    1. Hello and welcome. I do not know what show you are talking about but it sounds fishy. Does the show get any compensation for promoting those products? Can you find the specific products anywhere online, such as Amazon.com where you could read unbiased reviews of other people who have purchased that brand?

      Try going to Amazon (click here) and searching for the brand to see if you can find out what other buyers think.

    1. Rhvonda,
      Thanks for your input. I agree that you should carry as much on you as possible but the problem we all run into is weight management. Food and water are both heavy and will slow you down, if not cause injury if you are overloaded.

      What I suggest is to find a happy medium between carrying whatever you define as “enough” consumable supplies and those that allow you to make/harvest/scavenge whatever else you need to supplement this along the way.

      Good luck prepping!

      Chris

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