Staying Warm During a Winter Power Outage
By Daisy Luther
Depending on where you live, a winter power outage can quickly become a life-threatening emergency.
Winter storms with heavy snowfalls, high winds, and a coating of ice are a threat to our vulnerable power grid. Making winter even more of a threat recently is the current economic upheaval. In economically depressed places like Detroit, many residents have had their utilities shut off due to an inability to pay their bills. With temperatures in the negatives, people could quite literally freeze to death in their homes. You don’t have to be a prepper to realize that secondary heating systems, some specialized skills, and a frigid weather plan could be vital to your survival in the winter.
Are you prepared for a winter power outage?
No matter how you heat your home, it’s vital to have a backup method. Even if you have a non-grid reliant method as your primary heat source, things can happen. Chimney fires occur, wood gets wet, furnaces of all types malfunction…while these scenarios could be unlikely, you have to remember, “Two is one, one is none.”
Here are some options for heat that doesn’t come from a thermostat on the wall.
- Wood Heat: Everyone’s favorite off-grid heating method is a fireplace or woodstove. The fuel is renewable and you have the added bonus of an off-grid cooking method. Unfortunately, if your home doesn’t already have one, it can be a pretty expensive thing to install. If you rent, it’s probably not going to be an option at all to add wood heat to someone else’s property. If you have wood heat, make sure you have a good supply of seasoned firewood that is well-protected from the elements.
- Propane Heaters: There are several propane heaters on the market that do not require electricity. I own a Little Buddy heater. These small portable heaters are considered safe for indoor use in 49 states. They attach to a small propane canister and use 2 oz. of fuel per hour to make 100 square feet extremely warm and toasty. A battery-operated carbon monoxide alarm provides an extra measure of safety when using these heaters indoors. If you have a bigger area to heat, this larger unit will warm up to 200 square feet. Be sure to stock up on propane if this is your backup heat method.
- Kerosene/Oil Heaters: Kerosene heaters burn a wick for heat, fuelled by the addition of heating oil. These heaters really throw out the warmth. A brand new convection kerosene heater like this one can heat up to 1000 square feet efficiently. When we lived in the city I was lucky enough to have an antique “Perfection” oil heater, which was a charming addition to our decor that was called into service during grid-down situations. Click here to read more information about the different types of kerosene heaters that are available.
- Natural Gas Fireplaces: Some gas-fueled fireplaces will work when the electrical power goes out – they just won’t blow out heat via the fan.
- Pellet Stove: Most pellet stoves require electricity to run, but there are a few of these high-efficiency beauties that will work without being plugged in.
What if you don’t have a secondary heating method?
Sometimes things happen before we get our preps in order. If you don’t have a secondary heating method, you can still stay relatively warm for at least a couple of days if you are strategic. Even if you do have a secondary heat source, in many cases it’s important to conserve your fuel as much as possible.
If you have no additional heat at all, you can usually keep one room tolerable for 2-3 days. If the cold is relentless and the outage lasts longer than that, you may need to seek other shelter. Watch your temperatures. If the daytime temperature in the house dips below 40 degrees, the nighttime temperature will be even colder, and it won’t be safe to stay there, especially if you have children or family members who are more susceptible to illness.
These methods can help you stay cozier during a storm.
- Heat only one room. One year, our furnace went out the day before Christmas. We huddled into a small room with just one window. We closed the door to the bedroom and used a folded quilt at the bottom to better insulate the room. If you don’t have a door to the room you’ve opted to take shelter in, you can hang heavy quilts or blankets in the doorways to block it off from the rest of the house.
- Cover your windows. You can use a plastic shower curtain and duct tape, topped by a heavy quilt to keep the wind from whistling through your windows. Take down the quilt if it’s sunny outside for some solar gain, then cover it back up as darkness falls. If you have reason to be concerned about OPSEC, use heavy black garbage bags to cover the windows to keep light from escaping.
- Light candles. Even the small flames from candles can add warmth to a small area. Be sure to use them safely by keeping them out of the reach of children and housing them in holders that won’t tip over easily.
- Use kerosene lamps. Those charming old-fashioned lamps can also add warmth to the room.
- Use sleeping bags. Cocooning in a sleeping bag conserves body heat better than simply getting under the covers.
- Have a camp-out. This works especially well when you have children because it adds an element of fun to an otherwise stressful situation. Pitch a tent in your closed off room, get inside with a flashlight, and tell stories. When you combine your body heat in a tiny space like that, you’ll stay much warmer.
- Get cooking. If you have a propane or gas stove in the kitchen, your cooking method may not require electricity. So bake a cake, roast a turkey, or simmer a soup. You can use it to warm the room while making a hot, delicious feast.
- Heat some rocks. Do you have a place outdoors for a campfire? If so, put some large rocks around the edges of it. They retain heat for hours. When it’s bedtime, carefully place the rocks into a cast iron Dutch oven and bring this into the room you’re going to be sleeping in. Be sure to protect your floor or surface from the heat of the Dutch oven. The stones will passively emit heat for several hours without the potential of a fire or carbon monoxide poisoning during the night.
How to stay warm with less heat
Not only do we need to be concerned about a power outage due to the weather, but we also need to realize that utility bills could be extraordinarily high this year due to rising prices and an increased need for heat as temperatures plummet. When we lived in our drafty cabin up North, we had to take extra steps to keep warm. Here are some things we learned that will help out in either circumstance.
- Keep your wrists and ankles covered. Wear shirts with sleeves long enough to keep your wrists covered and long socks that keep your ankles covered. You lose a great deal of heat from those two areas.
- Get some long-johns. Wearing long underwear beneath your jeans or PJ’s will work like insulation to keep your body heat in. I like the silky kind like this for indoor use, rather than the chunkier waffle-knit outdoor type.
- Wear slippers. You want to select house shoes with a solid bottom rather than the slipper sock type. This forms a barrier between your feet and the cold floor. We keep a basket of inexpensive slippers in varying sizes by the door for visitors because it makes such a big difference. Going around in your stocking feet on a cold floor is a certain way to be chilled right through.
- Get up and get moving. It goes without saying that physical activity will increase your body temperature. If you’re cold, get up and clean something, dance with your kids, play tug-of-war with the dog, or do a chore.
- Pile on the blankets. If you’re going to be sitting down, have some blankets available for layering. Our reading area has some plush blankets which we top with fluffy comforters for a cozy place to relax.
- Use a hot water bottle. If you’re just sitting around try placing a hot water bottle (carefully wrapped to avoid burns) under the blankets with you.
- Use rice bags. If you don’t have the cute ready-made rice bags, you can simply place dry rice in a clean sock. Heat this in the microwave, if you use one, for about a minute, or place in a 100-degree oven, watching carefully, for about 10 minutes. I keep some rice bags in a large ceramic crock beside the wood stove so they are constantly warm. You can put your feet on them or tuck them under the blankets on your lap. (The insert from a defunct crockpot will work for this as well.)
- Insulate using items you have. A friend recommended lining the interior walls with bookcases or hanging decorative quilts and blankets on the walls to add an extra layer of insulation. It definitely makes a difference because it keeps heat in and cold air out. If you look at pictures of old castles you will see lovely tapestry wall-hangings – this was to help insulate the stone walls, which absorbed the cold and released it into the space.
- Layer your windows. Our cabin had large lovely picture windows for enjoying the view. However, they were single pane and it’s hard to enjoy the view if your teeth are chattering. We took the rather drastic step of basically closing off all the windows but one in each room for the winter. First, we used the shrink film insulator on every window. Then, we insulated further by placing draft blockers at the bottom of the window sill (I just used rolled up polar fleece – I’m not much of a sew-er.) This was topped by a heavy blanket, taking care to overlap the wall and window edges with it. Over that, we hung thermal curtains that remained closed.
- Get a rug. If you have hardwood, tile or laminate flooring, an area rug is a must. Like the blankets on the walls, this is another layer of insulation between you and the great outdoors. We have no basement so our floor is very chilly. A rug in the living room protects our feet from the chill.
- Wear a scarf. No, not like a big heavy wool scarf that you’d wear outdoors – just a small, lightweight one that won’t get in your way and annoy you. This serves two purposes. First, it covers a bit more exposed skin. Secondly, it keeps body heat from escaping out the neck of your shirt.
- Burn candles. Especially in a smaller space, a burning candle can raise the temperature a couple of degrees.
- Wear fingerless gloves. Gloves like these allow you to still function by keeping the tips of your fingers uncovered, while still keeping chilly hands bundled up.
- Drink hot beverages. There’s a reason Grandma always gave you a mug of cocoa after you finished building that snowman. Warm up from the inside out with a cup of coffee, tea, cider, or hot chocolate. Bonus: Holding the mug makes your hands toasty warm.
- Cuddle. Share your body heat under the blankets when you’re watching movies or reading a book.
What if you’re stranded due to icy roads?
What if you’re not at home when a winter storm strikes? In a previous article about preparing your vehicle for winter, I brought up a couple of situations that occurred last year.
During one scenario, a freak snowstorm struck the Atlanta, Georgia area. Because weather like this is such a rarity, the area was completely unprepared, officials didn’t have the experience or equipment needed to deal with it, and traffic gridlocked almost immediately. Hundreds of people were stranded as the freeway turned into a scene reminiscent of The Walking Dead, with bumper-to-bumper vehicles at a standstill. Those without food and water in their vehicles went hungry, and many people ran out of gas as they tried to keep warm. No matter how comfortable you are with winter driving, in a situation like this, you are at the mercy of others who may not be so experienced.
The next situation had a lot more potential for a tragic ending, had it not been for the survival skills of a father of 4 small children. A family of six had taken off for a day of snowy adventure, when their Jeep flipped over in a remote part of the Seven Troughs mountain range in Northwestern Nevada. James Glanton, a miner and experienced hunter, kept his family alive and unscathed for two days in the frigid wilderness using only the items from his vehicle and the environment. Due to his survival skills and the things he had on hand, none of the family members so much as suffered frostbite while awaiting rescue. You can learn more about the hero dad’s resourcefulness HERE.
Regardless of why you’re stranded somewhere besides your cozy home, you should have supplies in your vehicle to fend off frostbite (or even death) due to frigid conditions.
Include things like:
- A first aid kit
- Winter gear like heavy coats, snow pants, boots, extra socks, hats, gloves, and scarves
- High-quality mylar space blankets
- Sleeping bags
- Water purification systems like Berkey-to-go or Sawyer Mini
- Small collapsible stove for cooking
- You can find a much more detailed vehicle emergency kit HERE.
Even if you aren’t a prepper, it only makes sense to get ready for a storm.
Unless you think the entire process of weather forecasting is some sort of insane voodoo, then it’s pretty undeniable that a big storm is coming. Winters in America have been setting records for bone-numbing, snot-freezing cold for the last couple of years, and it appears that this winter will be no different.
While some folks aren’t quite ready to plunge wholeheartedly into prepping, it’s hard to deny the common sense factor of preparing for a likely scenario. You should have at the minimum, a two-week supply of food and other necessities. Before the power goes out, develop a plan to keep your family warm, even while the mercury outside reaches near-Arctic depths.