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When the Power Grid Fails

In this post, we’ll discuss why the power grid fails, and how to prepare for a power outage that disrupts electricity and basic services such as communications, water and trash pickup. If the power grid goes down, water and natural gas will likely fail at some point, so planning is critical.

The power grid is one of those things we take for granted, but it’s time to acknowledge that it’s getting older. It is reaching capacity and it is under attack. As of 2021, the average age of the power grid is 31 years old. Power outages are over 2.5 times more likely than they were in 1984.

In the article Bracing for a big power grid attack: ‘One is too many’, USA Today states “About once every four days, part of the nation’s power grid — a system whose failure could leave millions in the dark — is struck by a cyber or physical attack.

Without a plan in place, most of us would be in bad shape with an extended grid outage. Power outages cost between $18 and $33 billion per year in the United States.

The site PowerOutage.US shows current outages, aggregating utility company data from around the United States.

California is likely to see more outages and brownouts this summer. PG&E has intentionally caused widespread outages to avoid fires. California has announced they will do it again this summer and other states are starting to talk about similar outages for various reasons.

Feb 2021 saw widespread Texas grid power outages due to cold weather.

12 Things You Need to Prepare for if the Grid is Down

Here are 12 things you can do to be better prepared when the grid goes down.

#1 Lighting

Make sure you can see when the power grid fails! Could you find your way out in pitch black with elevators not working at home or work or when traveling? The power will probably fail when you don’t expect it.

Even a small flashlight can make a huge difference. Consider a flashlight for each bedroom, each bathroom and in your kitchen, garage, in each vehicle and one near your electrical panel.

Stocking spare flashlights is a great plan, especially if you have kids who lose them. Consider a flashlight for your key ring, your pocket and/or purse and one at work. Also, consider rechargeable batteries for those flashlights.

Candles or oil hurricane lamps are other possible lighting source, but keep in mind they create a fire risk and fresh air may be a problem if you are in a tightly sealed building. One advantage of candles and lamps is that they do provide heat, which is useful for cold climates.

A crank powered flashlight is great for kids and serve a double function as a flashlight and backup charger for emergencies. Plus you can get them relatively inexpensively.

  • Best inexpensive flashlight – We recommend a 5 pack of AA Kootek XPE-Q5 LED flashlight with adjustable focus zoom for more info on this flashlight see the “Best Cheap Flashlight” post.
  • Best mid-priced 1000+ lumen flashlight – 18650 LED Flashlight Thrunite TN12
  • Multi-function crank flashlight/radio/USB phone charger
  • Good small work flood light (has a magnet so it can stick to car while changing a tire) the NEBO COB flashlight is a great option, it uses 3x AAA batteries.
  • Solar Camp Light Camping Lantern (with USB charger)
  • Crank Camp Light – Camping Lantern (with USB charger)

#2 Batteries

Flashlights are great, but when is the last time you checked them? Get batteries – a lot of rechargeable batteries.

Do you have long life batteries? You can get low self discharge rechargeable AA batteries. Also there are batteries with a long storage life. The Duracell pack has a 10 year shelf life and a new Energizer pack has a 20 year shelf life.

If possible, standardize your flashlights and other battery gear on AA, AAA and/or 18650. Even though there are long shelf life batteries, we recommend rechargeable batteries and a good charger.

Rechargeable batteries cost a bit more up front but can save you a lot of money over the years. They batteries protect you in an extended power outage because you can recharge them. You would eventually run out of single use batteries.

There are crank and solar battery chargers, also your car can charge batteries while you travel using a 12 volt adapter.

See our Best Rechargeable Battery and Best Battery Charger article for a detailed review of the best AA, AAA and 18650 rechargeable batteries. We also review the NekTeck 28 watt solar panel that provides 5 volt USB power and emergency radios with built in solar and hand crank chargers to recharge USB devices.

#3 Water

Keep a couple cases of water bottles around for emergency power outages. Rotate your water storage. Even water will go stale after extended storage. We have a 55 gal drinking potable water drum with a pump and consider a roller base for emergencies, especially if you do not have an alternate water source.

ACTIONS: If you suspect power might go out fill your bathtubs, and your sinks, and flush your toilets. If you fill water jugs and other containers if you have them.

It is good to take action if the power flickers a few times. Dish and dirty wash water should be used in a bucket or plugged sink. That dirty water is just fine for flushing toilets — see #6.

Finally, consider good water filters such as Berkey, ZeroWater and/or Lifestraw. These can take questionable water and make it drinkable. Or take “stale” water that is not pleasant to drink and make it taste better.

See Emergency Water Storage and Filtration – What You Need to Know for a more detailed list of water storage and filtration options.

#4 Toilet

Nature still calls whether the power is out or not. If you suspect the power will go out, flush your toilets right away (before the power is out). When power grid fails, follow the rhyme “if its yellow let it mellow, if its brown flush it down” for short term outages.

Flushing water is likely to be limited. Water used once for hand washing can be used again to flush the toilet. Don’t forget to stock up on extra toilet paper.

With long term grid down situations, toilets aren’t likely to work. Gravity handles the flush, but the sewer or septic may rely on power to pump sewage. Know where your poop goes.

It might be necessary to poop on a newspaper, or in a DIY Emergency Toilet and store refuse in a black plastic bags. Have some wet wipes available for clean up. Another option is a commode, using a bucket and garbage bags.

#5 Garbage 

You need a lot of heavy duty garbage bags. Plan for garbage management in advance. Stock paper plates and plastic silverware so you have less or no dish washing. But disposable paper plates and silverware means more garbage.

How many large garbage bins could you set aside for water, or refuse, or cleanup, or garbage? What about critters coming around (rats, possum…) if you have a lot of garbage? Work out a plan for garbage for dealing with disrupted garbage pickup. If you need to burn garbage, build a burn barrel that burns safe and clean.

BONUS TIP: Garbage bags can also be makeshift tarps if a window is blown in, or you need to make something partly waterproof temporarily. But how do you hold the tarp or garbage bag in place? Don’t forget Duct Tape!

#6 Backup Power

Generator: If you have the funds, consider purchasing a generator. Remember you will need to learn how to use it. We purchased a Champion Dual Fuel (propane and gasoline) generator.

The best ways to keep your house warm in winter combine preventing heat loss and generating heat. Building smart will save money for the life of the home.

You will need a heavy duty extension cord to power your appliances, or you can hire an electrician to hard-wire to your home’s electrical system. If you are doing it yourself remember you need to add a double-pull double throw breaker or other power isolation during a power outage.

If you are on natural gas, and the local pipelines have natural gas powered pumps, you might consider a natural gas generator.

Solar panels: They are an expensive option compared to a generator, but they don’t run out of gas (except on a cloudy day). In general a gas/propane generator will give more power at a lower cost. Even if you get solar you will want a generator for nighttime.

Many grid tie solar inverter systems only work when the grid is up. Make sure you read the manual for your system. For Most California Homes, Solar Panels Won’t Help During Power Outages. Here’s Why.

Consider a more advanced inverter that can run without the grid, consider a battery backup and/or generator if you already have solar panels. In general the generator will cost less but requires regular testing.

See Emergency Power Options for Your Home for more information on providing your own power.

Refrigerators & Freezers – What to do if you don’t have backup power

If the power does go out, keep doors of freezers and refrigerators closed as much as possible. Make a list of what you need to grab and get it all quickly then close the door. Chest freezers (top open) are 3.5x more efficient than upright swing door freezers. A chest freezer will hold the cold better than upright refrigerators and freezers.

BONUS TIP: A full freezer stays cold longer than an empty freezer, so if you have a freezer that’s not normally full, keep frozen jugs of water in the extra space. 2 liter soda bottles work well. Don’t fill the bottles all the way to the top. (Water expands as it freezes.) The frozen bottles of water also provide a backup source of drinking water.

FDA Food Safety guidelines note:

Before using any foods, check your refrigerator and freezer thermometers. If the fridge is still at or below 40°F (4°C), or the food has been above 40°F for only 2 hours or less, it should be safe to eat.

Frozen food that still has ice crystals or is at 40°F or below can be safely refrozen or cooked.

If you’re unsure how long the temperature has been at or above 40 degrees, don’t take a chance. Throw the food out.

FDA

BONUS FREEZER TIP: Put a penny on a few of your ice cubes. If the penny is INSIDE the ice when you go to use it – you know the ice melted and froze, increasing spoilage risk.

Fruits and vegetables are more forgiving than meat and dairy. Use common sense, if it looks bad or smells bad do not eat it, and if your choose to eat something that is questionable – cook it thoroughly.

#7 Off Grid Cooking Supplies

Learn how to cook a meal without power BEFORE the power grid fails. Make sure you practice no-electricity cooking regularly, so you know how to do it and have the needed equipment.

portable butane stove

Outdoor grills work well if the weather cooperates. Have extra bags of charcoal, depending on space and family size. Also consider extra propane tanks on hand. Remember to cook/grill meats that will go bad first.

Indoor gas ranges/stoves may or may not work when the power is out. Many have electric ignition.

Consider purchasing a portable gas stove. Small butane stoves are great for cooking simple meals indoors, and store in a space about the size of a briefcase. Camp stoves may not be safe for indoor use. Check before you fire up.

See Emergency Cooking – 10 Ways to Have a Hot Meal When the Power Goes Out for more information on cooking without electricity.

#8 Food

Start by stocking more of what you regularly eat. Focus on foods that store without electricity. If you like a specific type of granola bar, or cereal or soup, keep a few extra of them and keep eating the oldest ones first.

Stockpile food while it is on sale, that way it costs less. Eat your oldest food first. Since you are eating day to day, it will keep your stock of food fresh. You end up eating what you normally would and still have a stockpile for an snowstorm or earthquake, power outage or job loss.

Have at least 3 days of food for everyone in the family – including pets. A 30 day stockpile is better, especially if you can stock a bit more of the food you are eating already, and supplement it with MRE, Freeze dried or other canned food you like. Stocking more can be a real challenge.

  • 20yr freeze dried foods:
  • 5yr emergency foods: Emergency food bars such as SOS Bars or Emergency Survival 2400 Calorie Food Bar are ready to eat, but you need to buy a lot of them if you are going to feed a family
  • **Try buying and eating each of these, and have the entire family try them BEFORE you buy a lot.

Buy small sample sizes and taste test before you buy a bulk supply. If the budget allows, a home freeze dryer may be a worthwhile investment. That way you can store food you know tastes good that your family will eat.

See also – Home Food Preservation – 10 Ways to Preserve Food at Home.

#9 Heating and Cooling

For people who live in northern climates, consider an indoor safe Mr Heater to keep warm. If you buy one get extra propane tanks. You might need more than one. If you have a fireplace or wood stove, stock up on firewood.

If the power grid goes down will natural gas still flow? The answer is probably.

Depending on where you live the natural gas pumps may use natural gas itself, which means they stay online indefinitely. But some use electricity to power the pumps. If your area uses electricity, you will likely lose natural gas. You have to research for your area.

Regardless, you should plan to lose natural gas heat. Check out Emergency Heat During a Power Outage and other Winter Storm Preps for cold weather survival tips.

For hot climates, read 12 Best Tips for Keeping Your house Cool Without AC.

#10 Communications

Your cellphone battery will die. Get a solar charger, and/or car charger, RavPower Battery Pack and/or crank USB charger. Leave the phone charging. Test your charger and batteries when you change your clocks at daylight savings in the spring and fall.

Assume you might not have 911 or internet. Have a list of key phone numbers written down or printed out. Have LOCAL PAPER MAPS, so you can get where you are going even if a few roads are out and your GPS isn’t working. (See Maps for Preparedness.)

A crank powered radio is good too. Get one that can listen to emergency broadcasts, and even better one that can listen to TV broadcasts.

For more info on emergency communications:

#11 First Aid Supplies

Either make your own first aid kit or buy one. Have one kit for home, one in the car/truck, and one for work. We recommend at least the Surviveware Small First Aid Kit or Surviveware Large First Aid Kit

You should have enough to be able to be survive for 7 days. Here are things you might need to make sure you have stocks of:

  • Over the Counter (OTC) medications
  • Insulin
  • Prescription medications
  • Inhalers
  • Thyroid meds
  • Adrenaline (EpiPen etc.)
  • Whatever you need (or might need) to take care the basic medical needs of yourself and your family

Get Trained! Learn CPR training and basic 1st aid training BEFORE you need it. Make sure the entire family is trained, even the squeamish ones.

For more information on first aid:

#12 Everything Else

This listed items above are all critical items, but there are many more that will improve comfort levels if the power grid fails for an extended time.

Money. Businesses that are open may only be able to take cash, or only take credit. It’s good to have both on hand, especially small bills.

Supplies. Do you have one or two changes of work clothes for each season? The power outage might occur right before your weekly laundry day. An emergency stash of fresh socks and underwear can make a world of difference during an extended power outage.

Paper is handy to take notes. A deck of cards and a couple board games can help to pass the time. Do you have a box of matches or BIC Lighters to light a candle or start a charcoal grill? Do you have hand/body wipes, alcohol wipes and sanitizing hand wash so you can clean up without using drinking water?

Don’t forget the duck tape!

Know How to Get in and Out of Buildings without Power

Learn how to get in and out of buildings at home, work and frequented buildings. Locate stairwells and learn how to get to them. If the power is out, elevators probably won’t work. This seems simple but try it at least once to make sure you can find your way with the building totally dark and with only a flashlight.

This is a good reason to have a flashlight at work and/or on your keychain.

Team up in a Grid Down situation!

A prepared group is much better than a prepared individual. Plan with your neighborhood. Plan with your friends and family. One person may have first aid skills, another is a camper, another is a hunter and so on. A team has far more skills and resources than the individual.

Think about group communication, like local walk-talkies or ham radio for talking to the team. Maybe there’s a designated gathering location, or different people in the group prep for different things, like off grid cooking or water filtration.

when the power grid fails text over lightning hitting power lines

Why Does the Power Grid Fail?

What causes brown outs (partial power loss) and black outs (full power loss)? The causes include: (1) Weather, (2) Increased demand, (3) Intentional Outages, (4) Cyber Attacks, (5) Earthquakes and other natural disasters, (6) human error, (7) the aging power grid and (8) renewable energy sources. See below for information about each of these.

Weather

Inclement weather is the main reason for power outages. Snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes create damaging winds or debris that take down transmission lines. Lines down result in the power grid failing in a local area. Extreme weather such as very cold or very hot weather can cause spikes in demand that exceed available power and overwhelm the system.

Increased Demand

Over the past decade rolling blackouts and brown outs have occurred because demand is higher than the available power supply. We have not built many baseline power plants, instead building peaking, wind and solar which cannot sustain power for a major plant being offline.

Intentional Outages

Government and power companies have started to reduce fire risk by causing intentional outages. There are also outages as some aging equipment is replaced. These are planned power outages.

Cyber Attacks

Cyber attacks are moving from theory to reality. The US utility grid is attacked constantly, it is likely the hackers will eventually succeed and do something bad. Airports have also been hacked numerous times but so far no bad guys have caused problems … YET.

Hackers successfully attacked Colonial Pipeline in in May of 2021.

During Christmas 2015/2016 and again in 2016/2017 – Russia successfully cut power to 250,000 people in Ukraine. This included a denial of service on the Ukraine version of 911 services. It has happened and likely will again and not just in Ukraine. Other examples include: the widespread cyber attacks by RedEcho (China) on Indian power (DLT, Telangan, etc.), the Colonial Pipeline attack, the thwarted Saudi Aramco attack and the 2014 Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) hack.

Earthquakes and Other Natural Disaster

In 1989 Canada experienced a power outage related to a solar flare. Brownouts and storm related power outages are more common. Earthquakes damage infrastructure, which may take significant time to repair.

Human Error/Disasters

In 2003, there  was a “software bug” power outage, which affected an estimated 10 million people in Ontario and 45 million people in eight U.S. states . 9/11 is another example of a disaster that impacted services including regional phone services and transportation.

Aging Power Grid 

The power grid today, experiences 2.5x more than it did in 1984. We are seeing power line failures, substation failures and numerous other random failures throughout the grid.

Renewable Energy Sources

Renewable energy such as Solar and Wind are great when it is sunny or windy, but they can create problems if the sun isn’t out or the wind isn’t blowing.

Another problem is that renewable energy sources and other “peaking plants” require a “baseline” to synchronize the power generation. Primary power generation is created by nuclear or coal based, large “baseline” power systems.

The smaller solar and wind renewable energy systems don’t have anything to synch to if those baseline sources are unavailable or offline. This means they would be unable to provide power even if it is sunny or windy. Note some more advanced ones can create their own sine-wave but that has its issues also.

Power Grid Zones

There are 100s of things that can cause a small local outage, a regional power outage or even an national grid power outage.

Get the essential information you need to prepare for a nuclear or solar EMP. Learn what an electromagnetic pulse is and how it affects you.
United States Power Grid Zones – Source

Recent articles about power grid risks and failures:

The article “Aging US Power Grid Blacks Out More Than Any Other Developed Nation” notes:

The United States endures more blackouts than any other developed nation as the number of U.S. power outages lasting more than an hour have increased steadily for the past decade, according to federal databases at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC).

According to federal data, the U.S. electric grid loses power 285 percent more often than in 1984, when the data collection effort on blackouts began. That’s costing American businesses as much as $150 billion per year, the DOE reported, with weather-related disruptions costing the most per event.

“The root causes” of the increasing number of blackouts are aging infrastructure and a lack of investment and clear policy to modernize the grid. The situation is worsened by gaps in the policies of federal and local commissioners. And now there are new risks to the grid from terrorism and climate change’s extreme impacts, Amin said.

Also, demand for electricity has grown 10 percent over the last decade, even though there are more energy-efficient products and buildings than ever. And as Americans rely increasingly on digital devices, summers get hotter (particularly in the southern regions of the U.S.) and seasonal demand for air conditioning grows, the problem is only getting worse.

The video below shows a recent PBS special discussing just how vulnerable the grid is:

As you can see, for most of us it’s not a matter of if the power grid fails, it’s a matter of when and for how long. We all need to prepare for power grid failure. Many of the tips shared here are a good idea for general preparedness as well as power outages. We always need food, water and shelter.

Has grid stability been a problem in your area? What’s your biggest concern if the power grid goes down for an extended time?

More Preparedness Information

The Common Sense Preparedness page lists over 100 preparedness articles, all sorted by category. They include:

August Neverman

This post was written by August Neverman IV. August served on several emergency preparedness teams during his tenure with local govt, at a 13 hospital system, as well as undergoing emergency response training during his time with the Air National Guard.

Originally posted in 2016, last updated in Nov 2021.

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