It can happen at any time, so it is important to know what to do when the power goes out. While there are things you can do to prepare, you will still need to act fast to protect your devices and appliances and to keep your family and pets safe. The steps you take in the initial minutes of a power outage can also improve how well you get through it.

A checklist of things to do when power goes out

Review this checklist of what to do in a power outage. It is just as important to know what to do when you lose power as it is to prepare for the possibility.

1. Confirm your power is out

When the power goes out, confirm what is happening. If you detect some common causes of power outages, they will give you a clue to what might be happening.

  • Check your main electric panel to see if a breaker tripped. Fuses keep circuits from overheating, causing a fire or damaging devices. Try to find out what caused the problem. Disconnect anything on that circuit before you flip the breaker back on. If you trip the same circuit breaker often, call in an electrician.
  • If you don’t have any tripped circuit breakers, the problem is likely more than a local event. Are street lights out? Are other houses dark? Call neighbors to see if they have problems.

2. If your power is out, call your local utility

The first thing on the list of what to do when the power goes out is to report a power outage to your utility company. In deregulated energy markets, you may buy your electricity from licensed Retail Electric Providers (REPs). In determining who to call when the power is out, find the TDSP (Transmission & Distribution Service Providers), EDU (Electric Distribution Utilities) or TDU (Transmission and Distribution Utility) for your area. That’s a lot of acronyms, but they all refer to the utility company that generates and distributes electricity in your area.

3. Turn off or unplug your appliances

In prioritizing what to do in a power outage, start with protecting your expensive appliances and electronics. It doesn’t matter if the power is out for minutes or days, the risk of damage is the same. Follow the same rules as you would to protect appliances from brownouts. Turn off or unplug all appliances for the following reasons:

  • Power surges could damage sensitive equipment (TVs, computers, tablets) and large appliances when power returns.
  • It’s easy to forget what you were using when the power went off like the stove or iron, creating safety hazards once power returns, especially if you’re not home.
  • If all the appliances in your home switch on all at once when power returns, the strain cand trip the breakers of your electrical system.

4. Keep your refrigerator and freezer closed

The next thing in considering what to do in a power outage is to protect your perishable food. Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed. Opening the doors allows the cool air to escape, causing your food to spoil faster. It is okay to consume refrigerated food up to 4 hours after the power goes out. If power is out longer, pack items with ice in a cooler to keep them below 40°F. It takes about 48 hours for frozen items to thaw in a full freezer, but that falls to 24 hours if your freezer is half full.

5. Using flashlights for lighting

What to do if your power goes out at night? You will likely want some source of light quickly. Candles are a traditional choice, but they introduce the risk of fire. During hot months, they can raise already-stifling temperatures higher. Flashlights and battery-operated lights and lanterns are a safer alternative. You can even buy light bulbs with built-in batteries that stay charged in your light sockets until needed. They should give you a 6 hours of light during a power outage. It never hurts to keep a ready supply of extra batteries handy.

6. Keep your family members safe and comfortable

Make sure your family members know what to do when the power goes out. Weather is a frequent cause of power outages. Family members are at risk of extreme cold or heat and storm dangers. Gather everyone into the part of your home that is most comfortable. That might be a basement in summer or in winter, an inside room with few windows or doors that let in drafts. Dress appropriately, drink plenty of water and eat carefully to avoid foodborne illnesses. Give extra consideration to infants, toddlers, older people and those with medical conditions.

7. Practice generator safety

Many people turn to power generators when thinking of what to do in a power outage. They can keep your refrigerator going and supply power for critical medical equipment. While useful, gas- and diesel-powered generators can be dangerous if misused. With a solar or wind-powered unit, you still need to be mindful of risks. Consider these safety measures.

  • Never operate a combustion-powered generator in your home/garage/closed spaces or you risk carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • If it is portable, connect it directly to any devices or appliances needed and not into the home electrical system.
  • Let it cool down before refueling so it doesn't overheat.
  • Keep it in a dry spot away from water.
  • If using a solar-powered unit, take care that you do not damage the battery, which can leak toxins.
  • When using any unit, do not attempt to draw more power from it than it's rated to supply. It could overheat and catch fire.

8. Stay in communication during a power outage

Communication during a power outage is important for your comfort, safety, planning and peace of mind. Home phones, WiFi and possibly your cell phone need electricity. Try to conserve your cell phone battery. Walkie talkies to connect to family and neighbors help. A battery-operated or wind-up radio to connect you to the news is also recommended.

How can I prepare for a power outage?

Planning ahead and learning how to prepare for a long term power outage and the importance of how to prepare for a power outage in the winter can get you through these situations with greater comfort and less risk. Items on your hurricane preparedness checklist apply in power outages. Here are some quick ideas to prepare for what to do when you lose power:

  • Have extra flashlights with batteries and know where they’re located.
  • Assemble an emergency kit in advance with a flashlight, battery-operated radio, extra batteries, matches/candles, bottled drinking water, non-perishable foods, charged backup chargers for cell phones, medical supplies, blankets and extra clothes appropriate for weather.
  • Consider purchasing a backup standby generator or a portable generator.
  • Establish connections and relationships to people in your neighborhood so you will be better able to cooperate during a power outage.
  • Make a paper list of emergency, family and work contacts. If you are able to find a working landline or borrow a working phone, you will have the numbers you need handy so you can reach out to friends and loved ones.
  • Subscribe to text alert services from your utility company and local government to help stay on top of news.
  • Never let your car gas tank go below half full. When power is out, gas station gasoline pumps will not work.
  • Have no-power entertainment in the form of books and games to keep up your spirits.