Winter hasn't even officially begun, and residents in the central and eastern United States are already staring down the barrel of another polar vortex. As temps plummet, electric consumers crank up the heat. With all that extra strain on the power grid, outages become more prevalent. Of course, the middle of an unexpected cold snap is the worst time for your power to go out. In times of weather emergencies, it's best to prepare for the worst. Follow these tips before the lights go out to stay safe, keep warm and maybe even save some money.
1. Know who to alert when the power goes out
Report outages to your utility right away. It can take the utility hours to restore power in inclement weather. The Chicago Business Journal reported that in 2011, ComEd took twice as long to restore power than the three previous years, due to a record-breaking year for storms. In 2012, the utility still saw an upward trend in restoration times over 2009 and 2010, despite an unremarkable year for weather.
The sooner the utility knows about an outage, the better. Some utilities, such as National Grid, offer online interactive maps of outages within their service areas. If you have access to mobile Internet, you can check the map to see if the utility is working on the issue and possibly get an estimate for when it will be fixed.
2. Be sure your backup heat source is indoor-safe
When choosing a backup heat source for emergency preparedness, be sure the unit you select is approved for indoor use. Unvented or vent-free combustion space heaters are never safe to use inside because of the toxic off-gases – nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide – they produce. Vented combustion heaters should be inspected annually to ensure that they remain safe to use from season to season. If the venting system is damaged, the risk of poisoning from carbon monoxide increases. According to the CDC, an average of 430 unintentional, non-fire-related carbon monoxide poisoning deaths occur each year. Household appliances, such as combustion space heaters, water heaters and gas stoves, are often the source of indoor carbon monoxide.
3. Protect yourself from spikes in electricity rates
A cold snap this week may only last a few days, but your wallet could be feeling the effects into 2015. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that a 10% colder winter would increase residential electricity consumption by 1.8% and likely drive up retail electricity rates in 2015. Retail electricity consumers would be smart to shop for a fixed rate before the cold weather sets in. Locking in a new rate now could save you money over the term of your contract if retail rates rise by the projected 2.7%, especially in New England where rates are predicted to rise even higher. During the winter of 2013-14, Pennsylvania saw the price of wholesale electricity more than triple.
4. Have an emergency kit ready
Ready.gov recommends a keeping a basic disaster supplies kit on hand. Be sure your kit includes the following:
- Water – 1 gallon per person per day, enough to last three days
- Food – a three-day supply of non-perishable food
- Can opener
- Radio – a battery-powered radio with extra batteries or a hand-crank radio
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Cellphone with an inverter or solar charger
5. Know where to go if you have to leave your home
Know where there are local shelters and have a plan for how to get there. Your plan should include alternate transportation in the event that your typical mode of transport is unavailable. If you plan to use your personal vehicle, keep the tank at least half full as gas-station pumps may not work in a power outage. Don't forget to make a plan for your four-legged family members and never leave them behind. Plan a shelter alternative for your pet if animals are not permitted at your local shelter.