One of the biggest blackouts in history occurred on Aug. 14, 2003, and left over 50 million people without power in the northeast United States and Canada due to a software bug in an Ohio energy company’s control room. What should’ve been a manageable blackout turned into a widespread problem that proves blackouts can happen anywhere and to anyone.
Before a Blackout
To prepare for a blackout you should do the following:
- Build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan.
- Follow energy conservation measures to keep your use of electricity as low as possible. This can help power companies avoid imposing rolling blackouts, which are used in severe circumstances when operating reserves fall below a certain threshold.
- Fill plastic containers with water and place them in the refrigerator and freezer if there’s room. Leave about 2 centimetres of space inside each one, because water expands as it freezes. This chilled or frozen water will help keep food cold during a temporary power outage by replacing air that can warm up quickly with water or ice that stays cold for several hours without additional refrigeration.
- Be aware that most medication that requires refrigeration can be kept in a closed refrigerator for several hours without a problem. If you’re not sure whether your medication will keep in a closed refrigerator, check with your physician or pharmacist.
- Keep your car tank at least half full, because gas stations rely on electricity to power their pumps.
- Know where the manual release lever of your electric garage door opener is located and how to operate it. Garage doors can be heavy, so you may need help to lift it.
- Keep a key to your house with you if you regularly use the garage as the primary means of entering your home, in case the garage door will not open.
People with Disabilities and Other Access and Functional Needs
- Call your power company before rolling blackouts occur if you use a battery-operated wheelchair, life-support system or other power-dependent equipment. Ask them what alternatives are available in your area. Contact the customer service department of your local utility companies to find out if this service is available in your community.
- Have an extra battery on hand if you use a motorized wheelchair or scooter. A car battery can also be used with a wheelchair, but will not last as long as a wheelchair’s deep-cycle battery. If available, have a lightweight manual wheelchair for backup.
- Have a talking or Braille clock or large-print timepiece with extra batteries if you are blind or have a visual disability.
- Consider getting a small, portable battery-operated television set if you are deaf or hard of hearing. Emergency broadcasts may give information in sign language or open captioning.
During a Blackout
- Use only flashlights for emergency lighting. NEVER use candles during a blackout or power outage due to extreme risk of fire.
- Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed to keep your food as fresh as possible. If you must eat food that was refrigerated or frozen, check it carefully for signs of spoilage.
- Turn off or disconnect appliances, equipment or electronics in use when the power went out. Power may return with momentary “surges” or “spikes” that can damage computers as well as motors in appliances like the air conditioner, refrigerator, washer or furnace.
- Do not run a generator inside your home or garage.
- Do not connect a generator to your home’s electrical system. If you use a generator, connect the equipment you want to run directly to the outlets on the generator.
- Listen to a battery- or generator-powered radio or television tuned to a local station for updated information.
- Leave on one light so that you’ll know when your power returns.
- Use a landline telephone, cellphone or two-way radio to communicate—these do not require electricity from the power company to work. Use the phone for emergencies only.
- Do not call 911 for information—call only to report a life-threatening emergency.
- Take steps to stay cool if it is hot outside. In intense heat when the power may be off for a long time, consider going to a movie theatre, shopping mall or “cooling shelter” that may be open in your community. If you remain at home, move to the lowest level of your home, since cool air sinks. Wear lightweight, light-coloured clothing. Drink plenty of water, even if you do not feel thirsty.
- Put on layers of warm clothing if it is cold outside. Never burn charcoal for heating or cooking indoors. Never use your oven as a source of heat. If the power may be out for a prolonged period, plan to go to another location (such as the home of a relative or friend, or a public facility) that has heat to keep warm.
- Provide plenty of fresh, cool water for your pets.
- Eliminate unnecessary travel, especially by car. Traffic signals will stop working during an outage, creating traffic congestion.
- Remember that equipment such as bank machines and elevators may not work during a power outage.
Using a Generator
- Get advice from a licensed professional, such as an electrician, if you are considering obtaining a generator. Make sure the generator is listed with Underwriter’s Laboratories of Canada or a similar organization. Some areas have “air quality permit” requirements. A licensed electrician will be able to give you more information on these matters.
- Always keep the generator outdoors—never operate it inside, including in the basement or garage. Do not hook up a generator directly to your home’s wiring. The safest thing to do is to connect the equipment you want to run directly to the outlets on the generator.
After a Blackout
Throw out unsafe food
- If you are not sure food is cold enough, take its temperature with a food thermometer. Throw out any foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers) that have been exposed to temperatures higher than 4° C (40° F) for two hours or more, and any food that has an unusual odour, colour or texture, or feels warm to touch. When in doubt, throw it out!
- Never taste food or rely on appearance or odour to determine its safety. Some foods may look and smell fine, but if they have been at room temperature too long, bacteria causing food-borne illnesses can start growing quickly. Some types of bacteria produce toxins that cannot be destroyed by cooking.
- If food in the freezer is colder than 4° C and has ice crystals on it, you can refreeze it.
If the blackout has lasted an extended period of time (several days or more), test your water supply. In addition to having a bad odour and taste, water from questionable sources may be contaminated by a variety of microorganisms, including bacteria and parasites that cause diseases such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid and hepatitis. All water of uncertain purity should be treated before use.
Take the following steps to treat water after a power outage or other emergency if the water’s purity is uncertain:
- Filter the water using a piece of cloth or a coffee filter to remove solid particles.
- Bring it to a rolling boil for about one full minute.
- Let it cool for at least 30 minutes. Water must be cool or the chlorine treatment described below will be useless.
- Add eight drops of liquid chlorine to a 2-litre bottle of water. Stir to mix. Sodium hypochlorite at a concentration of 5.25 per cent to 6 per cent should be the only active ingredient in the bleach. There should not be any added soap or fragrances. A major bleach manufacturer has also added sodium hydroxide as an active ingredient, which the manufacturer states does not pose a health risk for water treatment.
- Let stand 30 minutes.
- If it smells of chlorine, you can use it. If it does not smell of chlorine, add eight more drops per 2-litre bottle of water, let stand 30 minutes, and smell it again. If it smells of chlorine, you can use it. If it does not smell of chlorine, discard it and find another source of water.
Energy Conservation Recommendations
- Set your thermostat at 20° C or lower in winter and at 25° C or higher in summer. Consider installing a programmable thermostat so that you can have your furnace or air conditioning run only when you are at home. Most power is consumed by heating and cooling, so adjusting the temperature on your thermostat is the biggest energy conservation measure you can take.
- Use an air conditioner only when you are home. If you want to cool down a room before you arrive home, set a timer to have it switch on no more than 30 minutes before you arrive home.
- Only use appliances with heavy electrical loads (dishwashers, washers, dryers) early in the morning or late at night.
- Do not set the thermostat at a colder-than-normal setting when you turn on your air conditioner. It won’t cool your home any faster and could result in unnecessary energy expenditure and expense.
- Open draperies and shades on south-facing windows during the day in the winter to allow warm sunlight to enter your home. Close them at night to reduce the chill. Keep window coverings closed during the day in summer.
- Clean or replace furnace and air conditioner filters regularly. Dirty filters restrict airflow and increase energy use.
- Clean warm-air registers, baseboard heaters and radiators as needed; make sure they’re not blocked by furniture, carpeting or drapes.
- Turn off lights, appliances and computers when not in use. Avoid using a “screen saver” on your computer monitor. Simply turn off the monitor when you won’t be using the computer for a while. Set computers, monitors, printers and copiers to their energy saving feature and turn them off in the evening. It’s no longer true that computer equipment is damaged by turning it off and on.
- Close windows when the heating or cooling system is on.
- Caulk windows and doors to keep air from leaking, and replace old windows with new, energy-efficient windows.
- Purchase energy-efficient appliances and lights.
- Minimize “leaking energy.” Many TVs, VCRs, chargers, computer peripherals and other appliances use electricity even when switched “off.” These “standby losses” can add up. If possible, unplug electronic devices and chargers that have a block-shaped transformer on the plug when not in use.
- Plug and seal the chimney flue if you never use your fireplace. If you do use it, keep your fireplace damper closed unless a fire is going. Keeping the damper open is like keeping a 122-centimetre window open during the winter—it allows warm air to go right up the chimney.
- Wrap the water heater with an insulation jacket, available at most building supplies retailers.
- Wash only full loads of clothes and clean the dryer’s lint trap after each use. Use the cold water setting on your clothes washer when you can. Using cold water reduces your washer’s energy use by 75 per cent.
- Wash full loads of dishes in the dishwasher and use the “lite” cycle. If possible, use the “rinse only” cycle and turn off the “high temperature” rinse option. When the regular wash cycle is done, open the dishwasher door to allow the dishes to air dry.
- Replace incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights.