Prepare for Winter Power Outages

Winter storms can move in quickly bringing dangerously low temperatures and large amounts of snow and ice that topple trees and power lines.  A record-breaking ice storm struck the central and eastern portions ofCanadaand parts of theUnited Statesfrom December 20 to 23, 2013.  That storm resulted in 27 deaths, a loss of power to over a million people and approximately $200 million in damages.  A similar storm also struck these regions in 1998. 

Are you prepared for the possibility of going without electricity, gas, phone and water for one or more days during a winter storm?  How would you stay warm, provide light, prepare meals and stay connected to outside world?  Consider these important tips:

Heat

Heat is a prime concern in cold weather.  Without electricity, some people have used gas-powered generators with tragic results.  Generators are similar to car engines: as they burn fuel, carbon monoxide is created.  When burning fuel in an enclosed space, the amount of oxygen available gradually decreases and carbon monoxide increases.  

The haemoglobin in our blood binds with oxygen to keep us alive.  Unfortunately, carbon monoxide can also bind to haemoglobin but does so about 240 times more tightly than oxygen, forming a compound called carboxyhaemoglobin.  This means that in a room containing both oxygen and carbon monoxide, your blood will absorb much more of the deadly gas.  The results are drowsiness, headache, nausea and ultimately, neurological damage and death.  If you decide to use a gas-powered generator, be sure that it is vented to the outdoors. 

Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces can pose a similar hazard.  Wood combustion produces carbon monoxide along with carbon dioxide, nitrogen and ash particulate.  A wood stove should be placed on a non-flammable surface and have exhaust pipes that vent to the outdoors.  If you have a fireplace, have the inside of the chimney professionally cleaned to prevent the build-up of flammable creosote.  Also check the exhaust flue to ensure that leaves and branches are not blocking the air flow.

Battery-free emergency gear

Authorities rely on radio waves to communicate key information when outages cut off television and internet access.  A radio and a flashlight are two essential pieces of emergency gear.  Batteries provide perhaps five hours of power to a flashlight and 20 hours to a radio.  A better option is a hand crank device. Just one minute of turning a crank can provide 10 minutes of flashlight operation or 30 minutes of radio.  Products are sold online and at hardware and camping supply stores.  Applied Innotech offers a combination flashlight and AM/FM radio with a solar panel to allow all day radio use.  It can also be powered by a crank or plugged into a car’s DC lighter.

Emergency power

Being able to generate a small amount of electricity can allow you to run a portable heater, boil water in a kettle and even cook dinner in a toaster oven.  More and more people are choosing to invest in solar systems to reduce their utility bills with the added bonus of having emergency power.  These can range from solar panels that meet most of the home’s requirements to inexpensive, portable systems designed to recharge cell phones and laptops.  

Pipes

Water expands as it freezes, which can lead to burst pipes.  Insulation can help to avoid this costly problem. 

Wall and ceiling insulation

Adequate insulation is a good investment year-round but it becomes essential during a power outage.  It will help to retain heat in your home and reduce the likelihood of burst pipes.  Signs of poor insulation are cold walls and floors, uneven temperatures throughout the house and high heating bills.  The effectiveness of products has improved in recent years and if you have an older home, upgrading can be a worthwhile investment.  There are three main types of insulation: batt (typically made with fibreglass or mineral wool), board-stock and spray-applied.

Appliances

When power is restored, a surge can damage electronics.  Protect your appliances by unplugging them during a power-outage.  Open your refrigerator and freezer doors as little as possible to keep items cold. 

Emergency kit

These kits are available pre-made or you can assemble your own.  A kit should contain at minimum: bottled water, water purification tablets, high-energy food such as protein bars, a flashlight, light stick, waterproof matches, rain ponchos, scissors, rope, a small camp stove and a first aid kit.  For ease of transport, these emergency kits are usually stored in backpacks or containers with handles.  Ideally, store the kits somewhere handy such as the car and in a closet near the front door.  Be sure that all family members are aware of the location of the emergency kits. 

No one expects to be injured or killed by winter weather yet the incidents in 1998 and 2013 show that it can and does happen.  Taking steps to be prepared can help and you and your family weather any storm.