Monday, September 28, 2009

When The lights Go Out

The lights flicker, then blink off and the room goes dark. The TV and radio don’t work, so you can’t find out what’s going on. If you don’t have a backup electrical power system to run your home appliances, you’re out of luck. The furnace fan doesn’t work; neither does the air conditioner. The house starts to get cold, or hot, depending on season. The refrigerator goes to sleep, and food inside begins to warm up and will eventually spoil. The microwave won’t work, and unless you have natural gas to your dwelling, the conventional stove and oven are dead too. Life is suddenly very inconvenient. But power outages can be much more than inconvenient. They can be downright life-threatening, as emergencies arise for people who have critical need of electrical power to operate medical equipment. Folks die when the power fails.

If you happen to be at work in a big city, life can get really tough in a hurry. Consider what happened in southeastern Canada and northeastern U.S. during the famous blackout of 2003. An estimated fifty-million people were suddenly thrust back into the stone age, as far as electrical power was concerned

Electrical utilities can fail at anytime, caused by events that are totally out of your control. It might be a traffic accident that topples a power pole, or someone cutting a buried line while digging.  Birds or animals messing around on power lines can cause a failure, and of course ice storms and lightning strikes do their share of damage. But it might be something as simple as a computer failure somewhere in the power grid. You never know when the lights are going to blink off, so it's good to be prepared.

The first thing to do when the power fails is to check your fuse box or breaker panel. If everything looks okay there, check with a neighbor to see if it's just your house or a wider area that is affected. Then call your local electric utility. They might not even be aware that there's a problem until someone calls to report it. However, during a power outage, your cell phone probably won't work. Cordless phones are equally disabled, because the control unit must have power to be able to activate the handsets. Regular corded telephones might still provide communication.

It's especially important to have an independent power supply if you or someone you know is medically dependent on electricity being available. A portable generator might be able to do the job, depending on your power demands. If you use a motorized wheelchair or scooter, keep a backup battery available. And it's a good idea to maintain a week's supply of necessary medications, to see you through the crisis. Also important for medically challenged individuals is to have a plan for relocation to a more suitable place — especially if the power goes down in the dead of winter or during a heat wave. If the furnace or air conditioning system fails, those who are elderly, very young, or frail for any reason are at increased risk.

As important as a gas-powered generator can be in an emergency, it can also pose a risk. Exhaust fumes contain carbon monoxide that is invisible and odorless, but deadly nonetheless. Operate the generator outside where there is adequate ventilation, and aim the exhaust away from your dwelling.

Another safety issue with power generators is to NOT hook the unit up to your home electrical panel unless you use the special equipment required to do this. If you simply wire the generator into the panel to supply the house with power, some poor lineman working on restoring power to your neighborhood might get knocked off the power pole by the electrical feedback coming from your generator. The best bet, if you want to hardwire your generator to the house is to have the electrical utility help you with it.

Automatic garage door openers won't work without electricity. Make sure your door is equipped with a manual override, and practice using it so you'll be able to find it in the dark.

When the power goes out, your refrigerator and freezer will still keep things cold for a while if you don't open the door. A chest freezer is best, because the cold air is trapped in the box, whereas a front-opening freezer will allow the cold air to "fall out" when the door is opened. Keep the doors closed until you absolutely must get something out, and then plan to take out every item you need all at once so you're not getting in and out repeatedly.

The safest thing to do after dark is crawl into bed and go to sleep. Candles and oil lamps are great, except they do pose a fire hazard. So it's best to just cash it in for the night and hibernate. When you must have light, use a flashlight or battery-powered lantern. Keep spare batteries available. An alternative is a hand-crank flashlight or lantern that requires you to turn a crank handle to generate electricity to illuminate the bulb. Speaking of bulbs, LEDs are way more efficient than incandescent bulbs, so the batteries will last longer. They're nearly indestructible, too. Keep flashlights near the beds, so they're handy if someone needs to get up in the night.

If you normally cook with electricity (that is no longer operating), use some kind of camp stove, barbecue or hibachi as an alternative. It doesn't matter if the stove is large or small, don't bring it in the house to cook with or to provide warmth in a room. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a real danger when using any form of open combustion indoors.

Dutch oven cooking takes a little longer, but you can cook just about anything with that technique, using surprisingly few charcoal briquettes.

During a power failure, it's a good idea to switch off electrical appliances, computers and such, to help prevent damage when the power is suddenly restored. Early on after power restoration, there might be surges and spikes in the electricity that can damage sensitive electrical components.

If you are outside and see a downed power line, stay at least 100 feet away and call 9-1-1 to report it. If the power line falls across your vehicle, do not get out of the car and try to escape. Sit tight and wait for help. Otherwise, the instant your feet hit the ground, you'll be injured or killed. If you witness a power line that is in contact with another person, call for help. There is nothing you can safely do, except to summon assistance from the professionals who have the proper equipment to handle the situation.

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