What to Do When the Heat Goes Out

An extended power outage in extreme cold can be more than an inconvenience — it could jeopardize your safety. Learn now what to do when the heat goes out.

Bad weather and a power outage often go hand-in-hand, when ice, heavy snow, and high winds down power lines. And when temperatures dip into the nether-regions, losing your home’s heat is no laughing matter — especially when widespread power outages may take days to repair.

Follow this step-by-step plan of action to help you successfully ride out a power outage:

1. Prepare now. Check out FEMA’s guidelines for creating a home emergency preparedness kit and assemble everything you’ll need before you experience a power outage. Your kit should include enough water, dried and canned food, and emergency supplies (flashlights, batteries, first-aid supplies, prescription medicines, and a digital thermometer) to last at least three days.

Use battery-powered flashlights and lanterns, rather than candles, gas lanterns, or torches (to minimize the risk of fire). If power is out as a result of a disaster, know how to shut off your home’s natural gas, electricity, and water.

2. Look out the window. If lights are on in neighboring homes, the power outage may be due to a tripped circuit breaker or blown fuse. Head for your electrical panel and check it out.

3. Report it. If a circuit or fuse isn’t the issue, call your power company and let them know about your power outage. You can find the number on your utility bill or in the phone book. Never call 911 unless there’s an emergency, such as power lines down in your neighborhood. In that instance, alert the power company and stay away from downed lines.

4. Pre-empt problems. Shut off and unplug major appliances and electronics (computers, televisions, stereos) that were in use during the power outage. This step prevents damage to sensitive electronics caused by surges and spikes that can occur when the power comes back on.

Leave the refrigerator and freezer doors closed to help food stay cold for hours. If the doors to these appliances are unopened, food in the refrigerator is usually safe for 4 hours, and 48 hours in the freezer.

Provided you can keep them in an animal-resistant container, putting food outside is a great way to keep it from spoiling during a heat outage in the winter.

5. Layer on. Retain body heat by dressing in layers (sweater, sweatshirt, and a jacket); don gloves and a knit hat too. And keep moving: Physical activity raises your body temperature.

6. Warm safely. Carbon monoxide poisoning is the greatest danger when attempting to heat your home by alternative means. A wood stove or fireplace is your safest bet. Never use heating sources designed for outdoor use inside your home, garage, or crawlspace. Kerosene heaters, barbecue grills, camp stoves, and any device powered by gasoline, propane, or charcoal can emit carbon monoxide and also pose a fire hazard. (Heating with your gas stove isn’t recommended either.)

If you fire up a portable generator outside, locate it away from doors, windows, or vents that could allow carbon monoxide inside. Most portable generators ($500-$2,000) can power the refrigerator, a light, and a small 1500W space heater.

7. Take action. Prevent pipes from freezing by opening cabinet doors under sinks to allow warm air flow. Open faucets to allow a constant water drip. Prevent drafts by closing all the window coverings and sealing the gap at the bottom of exterior doors with rolled-up towels and blankets. Close doors to rooms you aren’t using (unless the room has pipes you’re warming).

8. Snuggle in. Gather everyone in the room with the space heater, fireplace, or wood stove, and close doors to the room, if possible. Wrap up in blankets and get cozy.

9. Set a signal. Flip on at least one light switch so it’s obvious when power is restored.