When harsh winter storms hit, they bring extreme cold temperatures, chilling winds, and worst of all — ice. This frozen water can coat power lines, which pulls them down and then knocks out the power to your home. For many, that means no heat until the power is restored.
Winter weather conditions cause crews to take more time to restore power. And with the increase in home construction across the United States, winter power outages affect more people. In 2008, an ice storm in the Northeastern US left 1.25 million without power, and many had to wait two weeks for service to be restored. Data from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) indicates that in the US between 1984 and 2006, of the large blackouts (those interrupting 300 MegaWatts (MW) or 50,000 customers or more) caused by weather, 10.5% were from ice storms or related cold weather systems. On average, each blackout interrupted close to 1,700 MW being supplied to nearly half a million customers.
The best way to get your family through an extended winter power outage is to know what to do. The best way is to understand your situation and take what steps you need to best prepare for it. So, to help point you in that direction, here are our 5 tips for winter weather home preparedness.
1) Conserve Heat
If you have a generator, wood stove, or gas fireplace, then you’re probably all set for a big freeze. Just remember to get your flue and chimney safety inspected before each heating season.
If you don’t have a fireplace, you have lots of preparing to do. Most homes will retain their absorbed heat for 8 to 12 hours (depending on the quality of the insulation and air sealing) to stay above freezing. BUT, the longer your home is without heat, the colder it will become. If you are caring for an infant or someone who is sick or elderly, the length of the wait can be crucial. That means after an hour or two of being without power, you want to start conserving heat.
Begin by getting everyone into warmer clothes such as sweatshirts and sweaters. Since smaller enclosed areas are the easiest to keep warm, the next step is to gather people (and pets) into the central part of the home with the fewest windows as human bodies tend to generate a lot of heat when they’re all in one small space. Close off rooms that are furthest away, such as upstairs bedrooms, because these will cool off the quickest. Cover windows with curtains or blankets to slow down heat loss. All of this will help keep the warmth where your family is gathered.
Infants and the elderly are another matter. According to the CDC, infants under one year old require help to keep warm. Adults over the age of 65 tend to have slower metabolic rates and are more susceptible to rapid heat loss. When a family member can’t maintain body heat and their body temperature falls below 95°F, they can develop hypothermia. One of the first symptoms of hypothermia is constant shivering. The colder a person becomes, the more confused their thinking. They become sluggish and clumsy and their speech becomes slurred. Recommended first aid is to get the person out of the cold, cover them with blankets, and provide them with warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.
As the temperature falls in your home, hand out blankets as well as hats and coats. Watch for signs of hypothermia.
2) Conserve Water
If your home’s temperature begins to fall below 45°F, then it’s time to shut off the water and empty the plumbing lines. This will prevent your pipes from freezing and bursting, and it’s far more reliable than just letting them dribble (cheaper, too). Before doing this, fill pitchers and your bathtub(s) with water for drinking and flushing the toilet. Locate the water shut-off valves where the water line enters your home, and after closing this valve, open all the faucets in your home starting with the upstairs and going all the way to the basement. You can leave the hot water tank alone. Water will drain from the lines. If you run out of drinking water, you can always turn it back on to restore your supplies.
3) Stay Nourished and Active
Keeping your body temperature at 98.6°F requires your metabolism to burn a lot of fuel. That’s why it’s important to stay nourished during cold weather. Overdoing it by stuffing yourself will actually make you feel colder because your body will put more energy into digesting food.
Keeping active keeps your blood circulating and helps you stay warm. However, during a winter storm you want to avoid going outside as much as possible. If you must go outdoors, dress in layers and avoid overexertion so you don’t start sweating. It’s important to stay dry, as sweat-soaked clothing pulls heat from your body quickly and leads to hypothermia. Frostbite is cold weather’s other danger: this is when body tissue freezes, turning it very pale or white, with the tips of ears, nose, toes, and fingers serving as common places. These should be warmed slowly to avoid further injury and then examined by a medical professional.
4) Use Lights Safely
NEVER use charcoal or gas grills to heat your home. Not only is there a risk of fire, these options produce lethal carbon monoxide gas. Battery-powered flashlights and lanterns are much safer to use, so avoid burning candles, oil lamps, or lanterns for light. That said, candles, lamps, and lanterns can put out heat, so if it becomes necessary to use them, make sure there is adequate ventilation. Never leave any of these burning when everyone is asleep. Appoint someone as the fire warden to be on guard against fire. Make sure everyone knows where the fire extinguisher is located.
5) Know When to Leave
When a winter storm leaves your area, the weather will typically become much colder. This is because the weather system’s rotation will pull colder arctic air in behind it. That’s when outdoor temperatures plunge into chilly record territory. If your home’s temperature is 50°F or below at this point, then it’s time to move everyone into the basement where the earth temperature will stay at about 45°F. If that’s not an option and conditions are making it harder to keep warm, then it’s time to move everyone to a community shelter (or any place that still has power so your family can stay warm). Most important is to remember that your duty is to the health and safety of infants, elderly, or anyone who’s ill.
While you should avoid traveling when winter storms are expected, emergencies do happen. To ensure your car will start reliably, fill your vehicle’s gas tank all the way up. All gasoline contains a small amount of water vapor in it, and this turns to ice during cold weather. Filling your tank prevents the build up of water ice in the tank and fuel lines that will prevent your car from starting.
Surviving bitter and extreme cold of harsh winter weather is mostly a matter of common sense. Remember, too, that the health and safety of others depends on your decisions. Knowing what to expect when the power fails in these circumstances will guide you towards the best way to help your family safely weather the storm.