Power outages always seem to happen at the worst times: the hottest night of the summer, the dead of winter, or during dinner. One minute, your TV is blaring, the AC is running at full force and you’re hard at work on your computer … and the next minute it’s nothing but silence and darkness. Getting prepared for a power loss isn’t hard. The problem is that most of us don’t get around to it until we’re already in the dark.
To avoid stumbling through your apartment looking for supplies, keep a few simple items handy in case of a blackout. Your kit should include a flashlight with working batteries (!) — more than one if your apartment is large — plus candles, matches, a battery-operated radio, and the telephone numbers of the super/maintenance manager, landlord, and power company. Most importantly, remember where these items are stored and always return them to the same place each time you use them. Even if you have the tools you need during a power failure, it can be confusing to know what to do first. Check out our tips for things to do in case of a power failure now, so you’re prepared when the time comes.
1. Check your circuit breaker or fuse box. If this is your first apartment after living in a dorm or you’ve recently moved to a new place, you might not be familiar with the location of the circuit breakers or fuse box. It’s best to figure that out now while your apartment still has power. In the event that you lose power, grab your trusty flashlight and open the little door that guards the circuit breaker. Most modern circuit breakers will have a series of little windows — when a switch has been tripped, at least one of the windows will turn orange. Luckily, this situation is easy to fix. Just flip the switch under the orange window and the power should be restored. If your apartment hasn’t been renovated since the 1970s, it may still use fuses. If you aren’t sure about your apartment’s electrical situation, check with your landlord or super/maintenance people. If your apartment does use fuses and you lose power, call your electrician because the circuit may use a live current which can be dangerous.
2. Check with your neighbors. If you’ve checked your circuit breaker and no switches are tripped, the problem may not be limited to your apartment. Check in the hallways and with your neighbors to see if their power is out as well. If it looks like the power outage is a building-wide problem, call the power company to report the problem. Don’t assume that the power company is aware of the electricity loss — the problem may only be affecting your building. Follow up with calls to your landlord and super/maintenance to inform them of the problem.
3. Unplug all electronic equipment. If the electricity loss is caused by a problem with your power company, turn off or unplug electronic devices such as stereos, TVs, air conditioners, and refrigerators. When the power eventually comes back on, you’ll want to ease the initial load on the system and protect your appliances from a power surge. Keep one lamp on so that you’ll know when the power returns.
4. Don’t open the refrigerator or freezer. Losing your power is bad enough. You don’t want to lose all of your perishable food as well. Your refrigerator and freezer are insulated, so if the doors aren’t opened, food can stay cold for at least two hours. Each time you open the doors, the internal temperature of the unit will rise, so keep the doors closed as much as possible. If the freezer is half full, food should stay frozen for 24 hours. If it is completely full, it will hold food safely for 48 hours. The refrigerator creates more of a problem. If the power is out for more than two hours, pack foods that spoil easily such as milk and dairy products in ice and place them in a cooler. If you have a digital thermometer, check the temperature of any food before you eat it. Refrigerated food should not be eaten if its temperature is over 40 degrees.
5. Don’t use barbecues, portable generators, or kerosene heaters indoors. Winter power outages are the worst. Not only do you have to deal with the darkness, but it starts to get cold fast. If your power stays out for a while, it might be tempting to try to use alternate sources of heat. No matter what, don’t use charcoal grills, propane or kerosene heaters, or portable generators inside your apartment. These can produce carbon monoxide. This invisible, odorless gas is lethal, especially in poorly ventilated areas. Instead, insulate yourself with blankets, share body heat or use hot-water bottles. Your hot water will be limited, so keep its use to a minimum.
A power outage doesn’t have to be a stressful experience if you learn what to do now, while the lights are still on. Purchase an inexpensive radio, flashlight, and a handful of candles now to save yourself from bruised knees and toppled furniture. If you’re not confident about how to check the circuit breaker, ask a more experienced friend or your super/maintenance person to show you. If it turns out that the power outage extends to your building or entire neighborhood, consider this a great time to meet other people in your apartment complex. Use complaints about the awful blackout as a way to start a conversation with the downstairs neighbor you’ve been meaning to get to know better.