A sudden power outage can be a minor nuisance or a major problem, depending on how long it lasts.
Short power outages can last a matter of a few seconds or up to several hours. Longer power outages can last days, weeks, or even (rarely) months. The average American experiences about five hours of power outage per year according to a report by the Energy Information Administration.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Best Items for a Short-Term Power Outage
- Best Items for a Long-Term Power Outage
- How to Make a DIY Power Outage Emergency Kit
But whether a power outage lasts minutes, hours, or days, it is worth being prepared. A power outage kit can make short-term outages less troublesome and long-term outages safer. And it can make the difference between unease and peace of mind when a power outage occurs.
Best Items for a Short-Term Power Outage
A short-term power outage kit can help keep you and your family calm in a stressful situation. While it’s hard to know when the power will come back on, this is the kit you should turn to within the first several hours of a power outage.
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1. Water for one day
During any power outage, it may or may not be safe to use the plumbing at your home. This is especially true for long-term outages, but having a supply of water readily available for the short-term is a good idea as well.
Make sure you have at least one gallon of water per person available with your short-term power outage kit. If you have pets, you should also set aside enough water for them as well.
2. One easy meal and snacks
The food in your refrigerator will stay safe to eat for four hours after the power goes out, as long as it stays cold. That means that as long as the power comes back on in under four hours, you won’t have to throw away all of the perishables in your fridge.
The same rules apply for your freezer, but your frozen foods will stay safe for 48 hours if full or 24 hours if half-full.
With all that said, it is recommended to have some ready-to-eat food available in the event of a power outage. These include canned foods that you can eat without heating and shelf-stable snacks like protein bars. You may also want to include instant coffee or tea bags. You’ll also want to have a plan for your pet that includes backup dry food or cans as well.
If anyone in your household takes prescription medications, they should try not to run low on their medication as much as possible.
Make sure you have at least three days’ worth of each medication available at all times, just in case you don’t have access to a pharmacy when the power is out.
4. Flashlights and lanterns
Keep one high-quality flashlight in your kit for each member of the family. You might also want to store one or two battery-powered camping lanterns in your kit to light up the main room or room of your home. In the event you have to fix something or need both hands for a task, a headlamp may be worth keeping around as well.
5. Cash in small bills
During a power outage, stores and amenities near you probably won’t be able to accept cards or checks. And nearby ATMs may be out of service, too.
Instead of traveling further to reach necessities like food, water, and shelter from extreme temperatures, you could pay in cash. It’s best to stash small bills in case a store is out of change. Try to keep at least $100 in small bills on-hand in case of a power outage.
6. Games and books
You don’t necessarily have to keep these with the rest of your power outage supplies, but they’re good to have around the house in case of a power failure.
Keep a few books around that you haven’t read yet, as well as board games that the whole family can enjoy.
Best Items for a Long-Term Power Outage
Once a power outage crosses the threshold from short-term to long-term (more than 12 hours), you might need extra supplies. That’s where a long-term power outage kit comes in.
7. Two weeks of food and water
The Red Cross recommends stocking your long-term power outage kit with at least two weeks’ worth of food and water. As described above, you should put aside at least one gallon of water per person, per day and choose foods that are shelf-stable and easy to prepare.
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8. One or more coolers
If you need to keep something cold such as food or medication, you may want to pick up ice from a nearby store. Fill one or two coolers (inexpensive, Styrofoam coolers work fine) with ice and make sure the items inside are protected from water.
You can also fill your refrigerator and freezer with ice to keep perishable foods safe longer.
9. Extra batteries
We listed flashlights and lanterns as part of your short-term kit, but of course, they’re a crucial part of a long-term power outage kit, too. Make sure you have extra batteries for your flashlights and any other battery-operated devices in your kit.
10. Digital thermometer
Once four hours have elapsed with the power out, the food in your refrigerator will no longer stay at a safe temperature. You can test the temperature of the perishable food inside with a digital, easy-to-read thermometer.
11. Battery-powered or crank radio
Without power, there’s no wi-fi or cable television. So you could be left “in the dark” about what exactly is going on. To stay in communication with the outside world from inside your home, you may want to have a battery-powered or crank AM/FM radio handy.
12. Power banks and car chargers
No one wants to lose the ability to use their devices, even if the Wi-Fi is out. Depending on the scale of the power outage, nearby cell phone towers might still be up and running. And that means you’ll still have access to your cell phone data and the internet.
To keep your devices up and running, you should keep a few (charged) power banks in your power outage kit. You can also keep one or two power adaptors in your car to help charge your devices. But keep in mind that you’ll have to use the car’s gas to avoid killing its battery.
Some car power adaptors even turn your vehicle’s charging ports into a standard outlet, so you can plug in devices without a USB.
13. Outdoor charcoal grill or camp stove
If you have an outdoor charcoal grill, you can use that to cook your food during a power outage. You’ll just need to make sure you have plenty of charcoal on-hand and that you use the grill safely. If you don’t have a grill, you can pick up a small camp stove, instead. Read the directions carefully, and only use the stove outside the home.
14. Important personal documents
If you don’t have a designated place to store your important documents, make sure to do so. You may want to make copies of important documents, like insurance policies, leases, birth certificates, and medical histories. Keep copies of these important documents with your power outage emergency kit. You should also include a list of emergency contacts with these documents.
How to Make a DIY Power Outage Emergency Kit
Now that you have all of your supplies, let’s look at how you should put them together to create and store your power outage kit.
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Pack everything in foam coolers
A convenient way to keep everything together is to place it all in your foam coolers, which are part of your long-term power outage kit. You can create one cooler for your short-term kit and two for your long-term kit.
Put everything in a safe and accessible area
Keep your supplies together and in a location where you can easily find them. You don’t want to place them in a dark and dusty corner of the basement or attic, for example, that might be hard to reach when the power is out.
Take inventory of the items you need that rely on power
Create a list of everything you need to use on a daily basis that relies on electricity. Some examples include medical devices, kitchen appliances, and temperature control. Whenever possible, create alternate plans for powering those essential devices.
Install carbon monoxide detectors on every floor
One of the biggest threats to your safety during a power outage is carbon monoxide poisoning. The harmful gas can easily accumulate whenever you’re using alternative forms of power for electricity, heating, and cooking.
You can protect yourself from the hazard of carbon monoxide by installing detectors on each floor of your home and changing the batteries as needed.
Talk to your doctor
If you use electronic medical devices or take refrigerated medications, talk to your doctor about your power outage plans. Find out how long your medication stays safe to take outside of refrigeration, and get their advice about powering your medical devices.
Make a list of power outage precautions and instructions.
With your short-term and long-term power outage kits, you may also want to keep a list of precautions. These are the things you should or should not do during a power outage, and they can help you stay safe and get the most of your supplies.
Here are some precautions and instructions to include:
- Keep the refrigerator and freezer closed except to retrieve medicines.
- Unplug appliances and electronics.
- Do not use any gas stoves or ovens to heat the home.
- Only use camp stoves and charcoal grills outdoors and away from windows.
- If you use a generator, do so only outdoors and away from windows.
- Have alternate plans for using powered medical devices and keeping refrigerated medications cold.
- Go to an alternative location for heat or cooling if safe and necessary.
- Check on your neighbors.
You should also include a list of locations that might be open for warming and cooling during a power outage in your neighborhood. You might need to travel to a different neighborhood or even a nearby town.
Refresh your supplies every six months
Mark your calendar every six months with “refresh emergency supplies.” It is worth reviewing both of your kits, long-term and short-term, and replace all of the water. You should update your precautions if necessary and remove any expired food.
Preparing for Power Outages
Even if you don’t regularly experience power outages where you live, it’s still a good idea to prepare yourself and your household. Natural disasters can occur with little to no warning, and they often result in long-term power outages.
The most severe power outage in American history happened in 2017. After Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico’s power grid, almost half of the territory was without power for nearly a year.
But some states still have longer-than-average power outage durations that might surprise you. In February 2021, the state of Texas was shut down by a number of rolling blackouts due to subsequent extreme blizzards that caused widespread damage to the power grid, leaving people without power and heat for days.
Even a short-term power outage that lasts an hour or two can cause anxiety if you’re not prepared. Reviewing the list above can help you create a complete and comprehensive power outage kit, just in case.
- “Power outage checklist.” Red Cross. www.redcross.org/content/dam/redcross/atg/PDF_s/Preparedness___Disaster_Recovery/Disaster_Preparedness/Power_Outage/PowerOutage.pdf
- Masters, Peter and Houser, Trevor. “America’s biggest blackout.” Rhodium Group. 26 October 2017. rhg.com/research/americas-biggest-blackout-2
- “U.S. power customers experienced an average of nearly five hours of interruptions in 2019.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. 06 November 2020. www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail
- “Power outages.” Ready.gov. https://www.ready.gov/power-outages