Blackout Safety Guide: Why They Happen and How to Prepare

Blackouts are becoming more common. You can't stop a power outage, but you can learn how to prepare for one.

Two women eat by candlelight.

Candles can provide more than ambience in a blackout.

Enrique Micaelo Sanchez/EyeEm/Getty Images

Many parts of the country are heading into storm season in the coming months. Whether it's wildfires in the West or hurricanes along the coast, summer can be a rough time for weather.

And rough weather often means power outages. A blackout that lasts an hour or two isn't a big deal, but one that lasts days can be outright dangerous for you and your family.

You can fare a lot better if you take the time to learn why blackouts happen and how to prepare for them. Experts say it doesn't have to be time consuming, but even a simple blackout plan can save you a lot of headaches.

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Here's your guide to weathering your next blackout safely, and maybe even comfortably.

Why do blackouts happen?

Blackouts happen for many reasons. The past few years, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation warned of an increased risk of blackouts throughout much of western North America. The prospect of hotter than normal summers, lower than normal hydroelectric reservoirs and potentially higher than usual demand for electricity all made it more likely the supply of electricity wouldn't have been able to meet the demand for it, triggering blackouts.

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More common reasons for blackouts are weather related. Wildfires, hurricanes, thunderstorms and snowstorms can bring down power lines or disrupt electricity generation, causing blackouts. 

Even extreme cold on its own can cause the power grid to go down. With more Americans electrifying their home heating systems, extreme cold can ramp up electricity demand beyond what the grid can handle.

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"Everything is jumping on the grid at the same time when it gets freezing cold," said Kyle Raabe, president of consumer power at Generac, a company that makes generators and backup batteries.

As extreme weather gets more intense due to climate change, more blackouts could be a consequence. If blackouts do occur in your area, there are a few things you can do beforehand to prepare.

Read more: Do Blackouts Affect Homes With Solar Panels? Sometimes

Are blackouts dangerous?

Blackouts are disruptive, plain and simple. Those disruptions could range from something as minor as an interrupted TV show, to something as life-threatening as a temperature-sensitive medicine going bad.

A short blackout may not pose a big danger, but longer ones lasting many hours or even days can put you at risk. Some rural Americans rely on electric well pumps for their drinking water, while just about everyone relies on a fridge to keep their food from spoiling. "Now all the sudden it becomes, can I eat?" Raabe said.

People with limited mobility might be the most vulnerable during a blackout, according to Raabe. If you can't easily jump in a car and drive to a hotel or a friend's home to access electricity, you need to make sure you can safely hunker down in your own home for an extended period.

"It's different for everyone, and it's part of the reason we always recommend, think about it ahead of time," Raabe said.

How to prepare for a blackout: A checklist 

The Department of Energy has a list of some things to have on hand for blackout preparation. That list is reflected below with a few additions.

Watch this: Portable Power Station Buying Guide: Bring the Electricity with you
  • Flashlights and batteries: The DOE suggests a flashlight in every room, but it seems good enough to have plenty of lights and batteries handy. Sure, phones have flashlights, but if a blackout carries on for a while, you might want to save that phone charge for other tasks, like communication or entertaining a kid.
  • Candles and matches: Candles don't run out of battery and matches are a reliable fire starter. Take extra caution with open flames, don't leave them unattended and don't use them if there's a risk of a gas leak.
  • Alternative lighting: Getting a solar lantern that can recharge without plugging in or LED lanterns with long-lasting batteries are two other ways to safely light your house.
  • Your utility's emergency number: If you smell a gas leak, you don't want to be reliant on Wi-Fi to pull up your utility's emergency number. Write it down somewhere.
  • Backup generator: Generators can be big purchases but can provide backup energy. If you get one, make sure it is safely installed and far from your windows to avoid risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you have a backup battery, you can make sure it's fully charged ahead of bad weather.
  • Ice packs and a cooler: If you have medicine that needs to stay cold, make sure you have some ice packs and a cooler ready. Then, only open it when you need it. Each time it's opened, warm air gets in and reduces the time the interior will stay cold. The same goes for your fridge and freezer.
  • Water: If you get water from a well, you'll need to keep water on hand. The DOE suggests one gallon a day per person.
  • Food: Keep some food that's nonperishable and doesn't require cooking. Canned goods would work well here.
  • First aid kit: You can stock your own first aid kit or buy one from the Red Cross.
  • Disaster plan: Decide beforehand where you and your family will meet if your home isn't an option and communication isn't possible.
  • Locations of cooling or warming stations: Cities often have cooling stations in the summer (or warming stations in the winter). If your air conditioning or furnace is out, make sure you know places you can head if it gets dangerously hot or cold.

What not to do during a blackout

The biggest thing you want to avoid during a blackout is improperly using a portable generator. The gas-powered devices emit toxic fumes that you don't want coming into your home. "Number one, keep that away from the house," Raabe said. "Get that thing away from the house and run the cords in."

You also want to avoid frying your expensive electronics with a power surge when the power comes back on. Using a surge protector, or unplugging TVs and computers, can help prevent this.

And of course, try not to open your fridge or freezer frequently during a blackout. You want to preserve the cold (and your food) for as long as possible.

What to do after a blackout

After the power comes back, the hard part is over, but you'll need to dispose of any spoiled food or medicine. With food, it's best to err on the side of caution. Throw things away if they've been unrefrigerated (above 40 degrees) for two or more hours, the Department of Homeland Security says. (The department runs the website Ready.gov with tips to prepare for almost any kind of disaster.) With medicines, it's best to consult with your doctor.

Another key step: Revisit that blackout plan you made and see what you might want to do differently next time. Raabe recommends you ask yourself, "Hey, did my plan work for me?"

A blackout is bound to bring some sort of inconvenience, but managing those problems and staying safe is possible with just a bit of preparation.

Here are additional ways your phone can help in an emergency and how to keep your pets safe during natural disasters. Plus, the five things that could help you get through a power outage.

Frequently asked questions

Are blackouts becoming more common?

Yes, blackouts and power disruptions have become more frequent over the past few years. This is mainly driven by extreme weather events in the US. Low-income areas and states that are prone to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and winter storms, are more likely to experience blackouts.

Is a generator necessary for getting through a blackout?

In a word: No. Everyone has different needs during a blackout. Some households might do fine with a small portable battery to charge their phones. Other families might feel safe with a small portable generator to power a fridge and other essentials. And still others might want the convenience of a permanent standby generator that flips on automatically and powers their entire home.

What's the difference between a brownout and a blackout?

A blackout is a total unexpected loss of power. Blackouts can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, or even weeks. A brownout is only a partial loss of power, where a system's capacity and voltage are reduced. Brownouts usually happen when there's high demand across the power grid.

Article updated on March 15, 2024 at 5:00 AM PDT

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Mike De Socio is a CNET contributor who writes about energy, personal finance and climate change. He's also the author of the nonfiction book, "Morally Straight: How the Fight for LGBTQ+ Inclusion Changed the Boy Scouts-And America." His path in journalism has taken him through almost every part of the newsroom, earning awards along the way from the Boston Press Photographers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. As an independent journalist, his work has also been published in Bloomberg, The Guardian, Fortune and beyond.
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Andrew Blok has been an editor at CNET covering HVAC and home energy, with a focus on solar, since October 2021. As an environmental journalist, he navigates the changing energy landscape to help people make smart energy decisions. He's a graduate of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State and has written for several publications in the Great Lakes region, including Great Lakes Now and Environmental Health News, since 2019. You can find him in western Michigan watching birds.
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