Prepare your home for a potential winter power outage

Temperatures have been unseasonably mild so far this autumn. Many homeowners have been happy to keep their furnaces off, or to set the thermostat lower for now.

But a recent wet and windy storm that brought down trees and branches across the region may have been a wake-up call for residents. Power outages persisted for days in several towns as crews worked to remove debris and repair lines. If a similar situation occurred during colder weather, would you be prepared to ride it out?

The main concern when losing electricity after a winter storm is a subsequent loss of heat. Custom Air & Plumbing, an HVAC company in Sarasota, Fla., says heating systems typically include electrical components such as circuit boards that allow the thermostat to trigger the furnace, relays to control furnace components, and motors to blow warm air through ductwork.

It is not safe or effective to try to run a gas furnace when the electricity is out. Premier Indoor Comfort Systems, an HVAC company servicing the Atlanta area, says you shouldn't try to light the burners manually. A power outage will also automatically close a valve that regulates gas flow into the furnace to prevent it from continuing.

If a furnace is not functional for a prolonged period of time, the temperature in the home can drop considerably. Closing the doors to unused rooms can help you preserve the available heat in your home. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency says some homeowners will also be able to rely on a backup heating source, such as a wood-burning fireplace or stove.

Not every potential heating source will be safe to use. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says you should never try to warm up a home using a gas-burning stove or oven. Not only will this be inefficient, but it also increases the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning, burns, or an accidental fire. You also shouldn't bring items designed for outdoor use, such as patio heaters or camp stoves, inside your home.

Open your curtains during sunny days to allow for passive solar heating. However, drawn curtains can help minimize heat loss through north-facing windows and during the night. Chaffin Mitchell, writing for Accuweather, says dark colored blankets work well to insulate windows and can also absorb heat from the sun.

Being proactive ahead of the coldest days of winter can help reduce heat loss, and also give the added benefit of saving you money on your heating bills. The American Red Cross says these steps can include caulking windowsills, installing storm windows and doors, covering windows with plastic, and improving insulation. Towels or clothing can be used to block drafts under doors or windows as a temporary measure.

A generator can allow you to bring your furnace back online until electricity is restored. FEMA says generators should always be located outside, at least 20 feet from any doors, windows, vents, or other entrances into the home.

When the electricity first goes out, you might want to turn off your furnace and unplug any sensitive electronics. Custom Air & Plumbing says power fluctuations in the grid can damage these components when electricity is restored.

If your home gets especially chilly due to a prolonged power outage, you should see if there is an emergency shelter available. FEMA says you can find where the nearest shelter is located by texting SHELTER and your ZIP code to 4FEMA.

Dropping temperatures create the risk that your water pipes will freeze. This will cut off your access to water and might also cause pipes to burst, causing significant water damage in your home.

Insulate your pipes to help them retain heat. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency says one emergency measure is to wrap the pipes with newspaper and cover them with plastic to keep out moisture. If the pipes freeze despite this effort, you can remove the insulation and try to carefully thaw the pipes using warm water or a handheld dryer.

Open your faucets slightly to allow them to drip, since this will help keep the water moving and reduce the chances of freezing. You should also know where your main water shutoff valve is in case flooding occurs and you need to prevent the water from flowing.

If a serious winter storm is in the forecast, it can be helpful to put aside some extra water. Filling up the bathtub gives you a supply of water for washing, and toilets can be flushed by dumping a bucket of water into the bowl. FEMA recommends having a three-day supply of fresh drinking water available, or one gallon of water per person per day.

Set up a home emergency kit with other supplies as well. These should include a three-day supply of nonperishable food for you and your pets, any necessary medication, a flashlight, and hand-cranked or battery-powered radio. You should also dress in layers and have extra blankets, hats, mittens, and sleeping bags available for everyone in the home.

Make sure the batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working. These devices are often hardwired into a home's electrical system, so it is critical that the batteries keep them functional.

Snow can be helpful during winter power outages. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency says snowbanks can be used to preserve frozen food, and snow can be melted for a water source. Mitchell says snow can be packed into a plastic bag and placed in the refrigerator to help keep perishable food cold. A blanket of snow can also add extra insulation to your home.


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