By Daisy Luther
Because 112 degree temperatures aren’t already bad enough, many Southern California residents also got to “enjoy” a summer power outage over the weekend of July 8, 2017.
A transformer in the San Fernando Valley exploded, causing a fire that burned for hours in the San Fernando Valley. The Los Angelos Department of Water and Power was forced to cut off power to 140,000 people while firefighters battled the blaze during a week of record-breaking high temperatures.
Traffic lights were out, people were trapped in elevators, and inside their homes, the air was still and sweltering. Temperatures in the affected areas reached as high as 112 degrees Fahrenheit.
About 40 thousand people had their power restored in only a few hours while nearly a hundred thousand were left without electricity for 12 hours. The DWP is still investigating the reason for the explosion, although some think it was the high demand for electricity due to the scorching hot weather. This isn’t uncommon, nor are summer power outages due to storms.
Just ask the people who lived through the Derecho of 2012 how unpleasant that was. Severe, fast-moving thunderstorms (called Derechos) swept through Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington DC. Millions lost power, an estimated 4 million for an entire week. As if a week-long power outage wasn’t miserable enough, that part of the country was in the midst of a record-setting heatwave during the time period.
Another notable summer power outage occurred back in 2003 when a software bug caused an extremely widespread power outage in the middle of August. It was a very hot day, and increased energy demand overloaded the system. Because of the issue with the software, engineers were not alerted of this, and what should have been a small local outage turned into an event that took out power for over 10 million Canadians and 45 million Americans. I remember this one clearly because the little sub shop beside my workplace gave away all the perishable food that they had out at the time before it spoiled and I took home fresh sandwiches for my girls’ dinner that night. We sweated uncomfortably through the next two days until the power was restored.
A summer power outage can be every bit as life-threatening as a winter power outage.
Much has been written about power outages in the winter and supplementary ways to keep warm, but not as much is written about summertime blackouts. However, it’s important to note that extreme heat can be every bit as deadly, particularly to older people, babies, or those who are already in fragile health.
We’ve become a society that isn’t accustomed to changes in weather because of our central air, our cool malls and restaurants, and our air-conditioned vehicles. When all of that air conditioning is taken away, our bodies no longer efficiently regulate themselves.
One of the things you can do proactively is to use a bit less air-conditioning.
We have basically evolved ourselves right out of being able to cool ourselves down without the aid of an air conditioner. We go from an air-conditioned home to an air-conditioned car to spend the day in an air-conditioned office and have lunch at an air-conditioned restaurant. Then we drive our air-conditioned car back home, suffer through perhaps 20-30 minutes of necessary outdoor work, and then go in, gasping for air, to cool off in front of another air conditioner.
Our bodies no longer know how to cool themselves because they never have to do so. We’re sort of like those cave fish that never experience light, so they evolved to no longer have eyeballs. We suffer far more in the heat than previous generations ever did, because we never allow our bodies’ cooling mechanisms to be used. That’s why my family has dramatically reduced our use of the air conditioner. Think about it: what would happen in a longterm grid-down scenario? People will drop like flies of heat-related illnesses.
But you can train your body to tolerate heat again.
A good friend of mine lives in the desert and has no air conditioning. It regularly gets to 110 degrees in his home and he is barely affected. That’s because his body’s cooling system is efficient – he uses it on a regular basis
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have many other friends who do not tolerate heat well at all. (I used to be one of those people myself, but while I definitely prefer cooler temperatures, I have managed to recondition my body to withstand hot weather with less discomfort.)
I’m not suggesting that you go run a marathon in the midst of a heatwave or endure 110 degree weather with nothing but an oscillating fan. But don’t be afraid to sweat a little.
There’s a very good reason that people need to stop being so uncomfortable with sweat. Sweat is the human body’s evaporative cooling system. Here’s the rundown on how the human body cools itself from an article called “The Physics of Sweating”:
When we sweat, our skin and clothing become covered with water. If the atmospheric humidity is low, this water evaporates easily. The heat energy needed to evaporate the water comes from our bodies. So this evaporation cools our bodies, which have too much heat. For the same reason splashing water on ourselves when it is hot feels good. Being wet during cold weather, however can excessively chill us because of this same evaporation effect…
When it is very humid, our sweat does not evaporate as easily. With the body’s primary cooling process not working efficiently, we feel hotter. That is why a hot humid day is more uncomfortable than a hot dry day…
Despite the fact that sweating can make us feel unpleasantly sticky, the principles of thermal physics make sweating a very important mechanism for cooling the body in hot weather. (source)
So, by allowing yourself to get hot and letting your body cool itself, you can build up a tolerance to the heat. By avoiding heat and sticking to chilly air-conditioned rooms, you will be far more uncomfortable in a situation in which air conditioning is not available.
Here are some strategies you can use to help keep your house cooler without air conditioning. Of course, those strategies rely to some degree on moving the air around with fans, and that doesn’t help one bit in the midst of a heatwave blackout.
Tips for surviving a summer power outage
Sometimes people think that a summer power outage is easier to deal with than a winter one. After all, in the summer, you don’t have to worry about freezing to death, which is a very real threat during a long-lasting winter outage.
However, a summer power outage carries its own set of problems. Foremost are heat-related illnesses and the higher potential of spoilage for your food.
Even if you aren’t convinced that hardcore preparedness is for you, it would still be difficult to argue against the possibility of a disaster that takes out the power for a couple of weeks. Basic emergency preparedenss is important for everyone, not just us “crazy preppers.”
Also keep in mind that summer stresses our fragile power grid to the max, as everyone increases their usage of electricity to try and keep cool with air conditioners and fans. This ups the chances of an outage even when there’s not a cloud in the sky.
Beware of dehydration and heat-related illnesses
One of the most serious concerns that sets apart a summer power outage from that of other times of the year is the heat. When you don’t have so much as a fan to move the air around, heat-related illnesses and dehydration are strong possibilities. From my book, The Prepper’s Water Survival Guide, here’s an excerpt from the chapter on dehydration:
Dehydration is the state that occurs when you use or lose more fluid than you take in, and your body doesn’t have enough water and other fluids to carry out its normal functions. Your electrolytes are out of balance., which can lead to increasingly serious problems.
Symptoms of electrolyte imbalances include dizziness, fatigue, nausea (with or without vomiting), constipation, dry mouth, dry skin, muscle weakness, stiff or aching joints, confusion, delirium, rapid heart rate, twitching, blood pressure changes, seizures, and convulsions.
Dehydration can lead to very serious side effects, including death.
Following are the most common dehydration-related ailments.
Heat cramps: Heat cramps are painful, brief muscle cramps. Muscles may spasm or jerk involuntarily. Heat cramps can occur during exercise or work in a hot environment or begin a few hours following such activities.
Heat exhaustion: Often accompanied by dehydration, heat exhaustion is a heat-related illness that can occur after you’ve been exposed to high temperatures.
There are two types of heat exhaustion:
- Water depletion. Signs include excessive thirst, weakness, headache, and loss of consciousness.
- Salt depletion. Signs include nausea and vomiting, muscle cramps, and dizziness.
Heat stroke: Heat stroke is the most serious form of heat injury and is considered a medical emergency. Heat stroke results from prolonged exposure to high temperatures—usually in combination with dehydration—which leads to failure of the body’s temperature control system. The medical definition of heat stroke is a core body temperature greater than 105°F, with complications involving the central nervous system that occur after exposure to high temperatures. Other common symptoms include nausea, seizures, confusion, disorientation, and, sometimes, loss of consciousness or coma.
Dehydration can lead to other potentially lethal complications. The Mayo Clinic offers the following examples:
- Seizures: Electrolytes—such as potassium and sodium—help carry electrical signals from cell to cell. If your electrolytes are out of balance, the normal electrical messages can become mixed up, which can lead to involuntary muscle contractions, and, sometimes, loss of consciousness.
- Low blood volume (hypovolemic shock): This is one of the most serious, and sometimes life-threatening, complications of dehydration. It occurs when low blood volume causes a drop in blood pressure and a drop in the amount of oxygen in your body.
- Swelling of the brain (cerebral edema): Sometimes, when you’re taking in fluids again after being dehydrated, the body tries to pull too much water back into your cells. This can cause some cells to swell and rupture. The consequences are especially grave when brain cells are affected.
- Kidney failure: This potentially life-threatening problem occurs when your kidneys are no longer able to remove excess fluids and waste from your blood.
- Coma and death: When not treated promptly and appropriately, severe dehydration can be fatal.
How to Treat Dehydration
People who are suffering from dehydration must replace fluids and electrolytes. The most common way to do this is through oral rehydration therapy (ORT). In extreme cases, fluids must be given intravenously. In a disaster situation, hospitals may not be readily available, so every effort should be made to prevent the situation from reaching that level of severity.
Humans cannot survive without electrolytes, which are minerals in your blood and other bodily fluids that carry an electric charge. They are important because they are what your cells (especially those in your nerves, heart, and muscles) use to maintain voltages across cell membranes and to carry electrical impulses (nerve impulses and muscle contractions) across themselves and to other cells. Electrolytes, especially sodium, also help your body maintain its water balance.
Water itself does not contain electrolytes, but dehydration can cause serious electrolyte imbalances.
In most situations, avoid giving the dehydrated person salt tablets. Fresh, cool water is the best cure. In extreme temperatures or after very strenuous activities, electrolyte replacement drinks can be given. Sports drinks such as Gatorade can help replenish lost electrolytes. For children, rehydration beverages like Pedialyte can be helpful. (Source)
For electrolyte replacement, Tess Pennington offers these recipes for DIY rehydration powders that you can add to drinks.
Store lots of water
One of the best ways to avoid the heat-related problems above is to store lots of water.
You can’t always rely on the faucet in the kitchen. In the event of a disaster, the water may not run from the taps, and if it does, it might not be safe to drink, depending on the situation. If there is a boil order in place, remember that if the power is out, boiling your water may not be as easy as turning on your stove. If you are on a well and don’t have a back-up in place, you won’t have running water.
Each family should store a two week supply of water. The rule of thumb for drinking water is 1 gallon per day, per person. Don’t forget to stock water for your pets, also.
You can create your water supply very inexpensively. Many people use clean 2 liter soda pop bottles to store tap water. Others purchase the large 5 gallon jugs of filtered water from the grocery store and use them with a top-loading water dispenser. Consider a gravity fed water filtration device and water purification tablets as well.
Because water is kind of my thing lately, you can find lots more information on this topic HERE.
How to keep cooler during the blackout
This is easier said than done when it’s 105 and you can’t even run a fan.
Here are some ways to keep a little bit cooler when the grid is down:
- Get battery-operated fans. (And lots of batteries.) A battery-operated fan can help cool you down, particularly if you get yourself wet first. They’re reasonably inexpensive and work well, although I recommend spending a bit more than for the cheap ones at the dollar store. This one is big enough to reach more than one part of your body at a time and can help you get to sleep. 6 D batteries will run it for about 40 hours. These handheld fans are rechargeable (so you will either need an off-rid way to recharge them or you’ll need backups), these handheld fans have a misting option (also rechargeable) and these handheld fans are powered for up to 8 hours by 2 AA batteries.these handheld fans are powered for up to 8 hours by 2 AA batteries.
- Stock up on cooling towels. I picked up some these cooling towels for use when I was working outside in the garden. I was stunned at how well they work. All you do is get them wet, wring them out, and give them a snap, then they cool you down, no power or refrigeration required. You can use them over and over again. They also come in these bands that can be worn around your head or neck.
- Channel your inner Southern belle. Slowly fan yourself with a handheld fan. Mint juleps are optional.
- Keep hydrated. Your body needs the extra water to help produce sweat, which cools you off.
- Change your schedule. There’s a reason that people who live near the equator close down their businesses and enjoy a midday siesta. Take a tepid shower and then, without drying off, lay down and try to take a nap. At the very least, do a quiet activity.
- Play in the water. Either place a kiddie pool in a shaded part of the yard or use the bathtub indoors. Find a nearby creek or pond for wading or swimming. (Note: Playing in the water isn’t just for kids!)
- Soak your feet. A foot bath full of tepid water can help cool you down.
- Avoid heavy meals. Your body has to work hard to digest heavy, rich meals, and this raises your temperature. Be gentle on your system with light, cool meals like salads and fruit.
- Make sure your window screens are in good condition. You’re going to need to have your windows open, but fighting off insects when you’re trying to sleep is a miserable and frustrating endeavor.
Scott Kelley from Graywolf Survival has super-easy instructions for making your own air conditioner that will help cool down one room as long as the power is still on. His design doesn’t require ice, it’s VERY budget-friendly, and he offers suggestions for alternative power, as well. It’s a must-read!
Be very conscious of food safety.
One way to take a terrible situation to an even worse one is to get food poisoning, which is bad enough during times with moderate temperatures.
If a power outage lasts for more than 4 hours, you need to err on the side of caution with regard to refrigerated and frozen food. Coolers can help – you can put your most expensive perishables in a cooler and fill it with ice from the freezer to extend its lifespan. Whatever you do, don’t open the doors to the refrigerator and freezer. This will help it to maintain a cooler temperature for a longer time.
According to the Red Cross, if your freezer is half-filled and is not opened the entire time that the power is out, the food in it will remain sufficiently frozen for up to 24 hours. If it is completely filled, your food should remain safe for up to 48 hours. If the worst happens and your freezer full of meat does spoil, keep in mind that most homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies will pay for their replacement, but unless you’ve lost a whole lot or your deductible is very small, it may not be worth making a claim.
I strongly recommend the purchase of a digital, instant-read thermometer. This has many kitchen uses, but in the event of a disaster is worth its weight in gold for determining food safety. I have this one and at the time of posting, it was less than $10. You can use your thermometer with this chart (print it out so you have it on hand in the event of a down-grid emergency) to determine the safety of your food. (The chart is from FoodSafety.gov)
|Food Categories||Specific Foods||Held above 40 °F for over 2 hours|
|MEAT, POULTRY, SEAFOOD||Raw or leftover cooked meat, poultry, fish, or seafood; soy meat substitutes||Discard|
|Thawing meat or poultry||Discard|
|Salads: Meat, tuna, shrimp, chicken, or egg salad||Discard|
|Gravy, stuffing, broth||Discard|
|Lunchmeats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, dried beef||Discard|
|Pizza – with any topping||Discard|
|Canned hams labeled “Keep Refrigerated”||Discard|
|Canned meats and fish, opened||Discard|
|Casseroles, soups, stews||Discard|
|CHEESE||Soft Cheeses: blue/bleu, Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, cottage, cream, Edam, Monterey Jack, ricotta, mozzarella, Muenster, Neufchatel, queso blanco, queso fresco||Discard|
|Hard Cheeses: Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, Romano||Safe|
|Grated Parmesan, Romano, or combination (in can or jar)||Safe|
|DAIRY||Milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt, eggnog, soy milk||Discard|
|Baby formula, opened||Discard|
|EGGS||Fresh eggs, hard-cooked in shell, egg dishes, egg products||Discard|
|Custards and puddings, quiche||Discard|
|FRUITS||Fresh fruits, cut||Discard|
|Fruit juices, opened||Safe|
|Canned fruits, opened||Safe|
|Fresh fruits, coconut, raisins, dried fruits, candied fruits, dates||Safe|
|SAUCES, SPREADS, JAMS||Opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce, horseradish||Discard if above 50 °F for over 8 hrs.|
|Jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, catsup, olives, pickles||Safe|
|Worcestershire, soy, barbecue, hoisin sauces||Safe|
|Fish sauces, oyster sauce||Discard|
|Opened vinegar-based dressings||Safe|
|Opened creamy-based dressings||Discard|
|Spaghetti sauce, opened jar||Discard|
|BREAD, CAKES, COOKIES, PASTA, GRAINS||Bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads, tortillas||Safe|
|Refrigerator biscuits, rolls, cookie dough||Discard|
|Cooked pasta, rice, potatoes||Discard|
|Pasta salads with mayonnaise or vinaigrette||Discard|
|Breakfast foods –waffles, pancakes, bagels||Safe|
|PIES, PASTRY||Pastries, cream filled||Discard|
|Pies – custard, cheese filled, or chiffon; quiche||Discard|
|VEGETABLES||Fresh mushrooms, herbs, spices||Safe|
|Greens, pre-cut, pre-washed, packaged||Discard|
|Vegetables, cooked; tofu||Discard|
|Vegetable juice, opened||Discard|
|Commercial garlic in oil||Discard|
|Casseroles, soups, stews||Discard|
Another way to combat the potential losses of a long-term sumer power outage is to use other methods for preserving your feed. Canning and dehydration are not grid-dependent and can save you a whole lot of money and prevent a mess of rotting meat in your freezer.
If a power-outage looks like it’s going to be lasting for quite some time, you can be proactive if you have canning supplies on hand and a propane burner, and you can pressure can your meat outdoors to preserve it. (Here’s how to pressure can roasts and chicken.) If you decide to get one, THIS PROPANE BURNER is probably the closest one to a kitchen stove out there. It works well for keeping your product cooking at a steady temperature. Don’t cheap out on this purchase, or you will stand there in front of this burner for a long, frustrating time and still end up with food that has not been canned safely. Be very careful to supervise the canning pot: you don’t want the pressure to drop to an unsafe level and you want to keep kids and pets away from this project. Added bonus – when you have a propane burner like this, the sky is the limit as far as cooking in a power outage.
Other stuff is the same as prepping for any other power outage
Many preparedness concerns are the same, no matter what time of the year your power outage occurs. Following, you’ll find a list of the basic things you need for any power outage. (Go here to learn about these things in more detail.)
- Food and a way to prepare it
- Sanitation needs
- Tools like lighters, can openers, pliers, duct tape, etc.
- A high-quality First Aid kit
Don’t forget about special needs
This is something that will be unique to every family. Consider the things that are needed on a daily basis in your household. It might be prescription medications, diapers, or special foods. If you have pets, you’ll need supplies for them too. The best way to figure out what you need is to jot things down as you use them over the course of a week or so. During a power outage, especially if it lasts for a while, you may not be able to get to the store or pharmacy to pick up necessary items.
Any other suggestions for a summer power outage?
Have you been through a summer power outages that lasted longer than a couple of hours? Do you have some suggestions to add? Please share the in the comments section below.