Coping With Power Outages (And Subzero Temperatures)

Ours was among the well over one million homes that lost electricity as a result of the Northeastern ice storm that hit New England and beyond on the evening of Thursday, December 11, 2008.

The extent of power outages caused by this ice storm is being classified as one of the worst ever. Other outages included land-based phone, cable, and internet services.

Our place went dark at around 10 PM EST on Thursday. We had power restored around 8 PM EST on Friday. We were lucky to have power restored in about 24 hours. Estimates for other regions are as high as two weeks. Living without power for almost an entire day was an important experience, especially for the kids.

Luckily we were fairly well equipped to weather the storm. Here's a summary of the lessons either learned or reinforced.

  • Keep a powerful outdoor flashlight, e.g. something that operates on three type D batteries. Such a flashlight will provide extended run time and a strong beam of light. However, use the flashlight sparingly so that you have it for when you really need it.

  • Keep a small pocket indoor flashlight that operates on one or two type AA batteries. Such a flashlight can serve as a useful backup. It will provide a shorter run time and a weaker beam of light. Use it to preserve your primary flashlight but use it sparingly so that you have it for when you really need it.

  • Keep plenty of extra type D and type AA batteries.

  • Keep a set of pillar candles (with stands), perferably non-perfumed. Multiple candles will allow you to keep a candle in each room and alleviate the need to carry lit candles around the house and risk an accident. The right sort of candlestand will prevent wax from dripping onto surfaces.

  • Keep several matchboxes, again so that you can keep one matchbox next to each candle. Keep the matchboxes in an airtight jar to keep them away from moisture.

  • Keep an emergency radio (ideally self-powered or at least battery powered) so that you can stay connected to the world and tune into local and national weather reports and news bulletins.

  • Keep a BlackBerry or similar smartphone, i.e. a wireless phone that is capable of browsing the internet and monitoring email. Although some smartphones can be used as a tethered modem to access the internet from your laptop for emergency browsing, it is probably best to preserve your laptop battery for charging the cell phone.

  • Keep a car charger for your smartphone so that in a pinch you can use your car to charge your smartphone.

  • In a pinch, don't forget that you can even use your smartphone as a mini-flashlight, for example to find your way to the bed after blowing out the candle on your dresser.

  • Install a natural gas or wood stove that will continue to work when the power is out. The stove will also provide heat. In case you have nothing to cook, boil a pot of water and take a hot water bath! [Credit: Navneet Singh Bhui]

  • Install a wood fireplace. It will provide both warmth and light.

  • Avoid opening freezer and refrigerator doors. Freezers and refrigerators will maintain temperatures for a day or more if they are not opened.

  • Avoid opening external doors and windows in your home in order to preserve heat.

  • Preserve body heat by wearing multiple layers of warm clothing, knitted hats, and multiple pairs of socks. As much a possible, stay under a blanket.

  • Ensure that your home is well insulated. Use old towels to block any gaps under externally-facing doors and windows. If you can see your breath, then your home is not sufficiently insulated/heated and you should consider moving into a shelter/hotel.

  • Plan food consumption to minimize waste and maximize the leverage of what you've got at home. Accordingly, consume highly perishable foods first, e.g. fresh meats, milk, milk products, eggs, ripe fruits, etc. Save unperishables such as canned foods, pasta, cookies, chocolate bars, rice, flour, etc. for later. Consider moving any highly perishable foods you cannot consume immediately into the freezer where they will be preserved longer.

  • Keep kids busy playing games that require no light or equipment, e.g. variations of last-letter-of-previous-word-becomes-first-letter-of-new-word around themes like geographical entities (continents, countries, cities, mountains, rivers), movies, books, etc. Make the geographical theme last longer by allowing younger kids to refer to a globe.

  • Your hot water will stay warm for several hours. Soak your hands and feet in it to stay warm before the water returns to room temperature.

  • Install a generator. The best sort is one that hooks up to your home's natural gas line and turns on automatically when it senses a power outage. The investment will likely pay for itself via the increased value of your house and the savings resulting from a reduction in spoiled food in your refrigerator and freezer.

  • Get a copy of the book "Apocalypse Chow: How to Eat Well When the Power Goes Out." [Credit: Merry Beth Hall]


  1. Just install a generator or an inverter in the gas line. I am surprised.

    But what about the electricity company? Are they not suppose to have a Business continuity or backup plan with a reasonabloe SLA and bring the power back asap.


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