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Handle a Blackout With Ease by Doing These 11 Things

Drought and other factors squeezing the supply of electricity can increase the risk of blackouts.

Two women eat by candlelight.
Candles can provide more than ambience in a blackout.
Enrique Micaelo Sanchez/EyeEm/Getty Images

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

higher than normal risk of blackouts this summer was in the forecast this summer for much of North America, from the Midwest to the West Coast and north to Saskatchewan. And while major disruptions haven't yet materialized, there's still a chunk of summer left. Warmer than normal temperatures can drive up energy demand while lower-than-normal precipitation drives down hydroelectricity supply, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation reported back in May. When demand and supply aren't balanced, blackouts can occur.

To avoid a blackout, utilities can reduce demand or increase supply, and you can do both at home. If blackouts do occur, a generatorportable power station or solar panels with the right equipment can keep your lights on and your fridge cold. Even without backup power, you can take steps to make an outage as painless and safe as possible.

Preparing to save summertime energy can pay off, too. Save energy by cooking differently, taking advantage of all that daylight and setting your thermostat to the right temperature. Learn how your phone can help in other summertime disasters, too.

Where are blackouts most likely to happen this summer?

The potential for blackouts isn't evenly spread, NERC reported. In a May report, the nonprofit identified two risk levels for blackouts -- elevated and high -- for the regional organizations responsible for operating the grid. An elevated risk means there's a chance that demand could exceed supply during periods of higher-than-normal demand. NERC identified an elevated risk of blackouts for the western North America, from Washington south to northern Baja California, east to Texas and north to include most of North and South Dakota. Saskatchewan has an elevated risk, too.

A map of the US and Canada showing a summer energy loss risk assessment for each region

Much of North America is at an elevated or high risk of blackouts this summer.

CNET/Screenshot by Zach McAuliffe

One of these regions -- the Midcontinent Independent System Operator -- has a high risk, which means there's a chance that demand could exceed supply during normal peak conditions, such as a hot afternoon when a lot of air conditioners are running. MISO covers parts of the Dakotas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana and Texas. It also covers most of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana and Michigan. And it includes all of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

While many of the reasons for this potential energy crunch have to do with weather and infrastructure, another is rising demand. (The report doesn't mention climate change. It does cite extreme weather, wildfires and higher than normal temperatures, however, all of which climate change affects.) NERC said that peak power demand is projected to go up 1.7% from last year. People in the region can directly affect demand, and it's not uncommon for utilities and regulators to ask residents to curb their electricity usage. A few ways to save electricity and money are unplugging appliances, adjusting your thermostat and weatherstripping your windows.

Read more: How to Save Money Around Your Home: 27 Simple Tips

If blackouts do occur in your area this summer, there are a few things you can do beforehand to prepare.

Why prepare for a blackout?

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

Most people grew up doing fire drills in school. Earthquake drills are expected on the West Coast. Tornado drills throughout the Midwest and South are regular occurrences. While blackouts pose less of an immediate danger, you can take a few steps to make sure you're as safe as can be.

How to prepare for a blackout: A checklist 

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

  • 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 carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • 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, cold air escapes 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 stations: Cities often have cooling stations in the summer (or warming stations in the winter). If your air conditioning is out, make sure you know places you can head if it gets dangerously hot.

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 with tips to prepare for almost any kind of disaster.) With medicines, it's best to consult with your doctor.

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