Living without power: a survival guide

If yours is among the 60,000 Fairfax households without power, you need to master the details of camping out at home. Here are tips from a pro.

As I write this, 60,000 homes in Fairfax have lost electricity. Not bad for a county of a million people. Not bad, that is, unless you live in one of the homes without power.

Oh sure, you will survive. For thousands of years our ancestors lived, worked, ate, and played without the benefit of electricity. Never once did one of them think, “Dang, I wish I had internet!” But after you have spent five minutes reflecting philosophically on how humans have devolved into pathetic creatures dependent on artificial everything for every aspect of their lives, you will find you still have fifty-five minutes left in the hour, and will be tempted to spend every minute of it dialing and re-dialing the Dominion Power outage line.

Don’t do it. That way lies madness. Instead, start planning how you will get through the next few days. If you have never had to live through a prolonged power outage before, though, you might want some tips from a pro.

I live in a densely wooded area of McLean, with well water and a sewage pump, both of which need electricity to run. When there’s no power, there’s no water, no using the toilets—and in fact, no letting water spill down the drain, either, lest if back up into the guest room. Until a recent renovation brought in a gas line for a new stove, power outages meant no way to cook.

And we do have power outages. The transformer by our house generally takes one look at a storm cloud and simply explodes. This summer’s derecho knocked us out for four days. A more typical storm will take us down for a day or two. When Hurricane Isabel swept into Virginia back in 2003, it was six days. Astoundingly, we haven’t lost power to Sandy, yet, but if we do, I am ready. Over the years, I have got this down to a science.

You did prepare, right?

The fact that you are reading this online means you took the precaution to charge all your electronics. You probably prepared in other ways, too, so you have flashlights, extra batteries, and maybe a lantern. You have a battery-powered or hand-cranked radio. You filled your soup pots with water and put containers of water into the freezer on Friday to have extra ice. You remembered that the refrigerator as well as the freezer would maintain its temperature longest when full, so you put jugs of water in the empty spots. Or perhaps you stuffed it full of beer and wine; it serves the same purpose. So you are in good shape.


If you haven’t already had your coffee, that’s job one. Assuming you don’t have a gas stove you can light with a match, your best bet is to fire up the barbeque, using gas or good old charcoal, or even wood kindling if you can find any that’s dry. If you haven’t got a camp pot to boil water in, use your oldest kitchen pot. Once you’ve boiled water, you can pour it directly over the grounds you’ve put in the basket of your coffeemaker. Extra hot water can go into a dishpan to use for washing.

Treat that grill well. You will be doing all your cooking on it, and your meals should be planned for simplicity, resistance to burning, and a minimum of pots.


Before you open the refrigerator, plan what you need to take out so the door is open for the shortest time possible. If you made extra ice, transfer some of it to the refrigerator, putting it next to the most vulnerable items. If the temperature in your house is only about fifty degrees, your refrigerator will stay adequately cold for a few days, though any meat should be cooked today. If your freezer has a lot of ice in it, the food won’t spoil for days, but it will begin to defrost. Move tonight’s dinner items into the refrigerator so they keep the milk cold while they defrost safely. And plan to eat ice cream for lunch.


If you didn’t plan for enough water, you may have options. The pipes in your house may still have enough in them to fill a pot; try the tap in the basement bathroom. If you have a pool, a fish-pond, or a rain barrel, you can use the water for washing and toilet-flushing (if you are able to flush).

The dirty details

If you cannot flush toilets, you’ll want to refrain from putting toilet paper into them so they don’t clog. Keep a plastic-bag-lined wastebasket handy. And speaking of ancestors, remember that in the days before flush toilets, chamber pots were considered refined enough even for royalty. You may not become that desperate, but it is worth keeping in mind.

Keeping warm

If you can build a fire, you will find it a comforting presence in the household, and likely to become the focal point of family activity. It may not do a whole lot to warm the house, though, since modern fireplaces are rarely designed to do more than look good. Fortunately, we aren’t expecting freezing temperatures in Sandy’s aftermath, so warm jackets during the day and some extra blankets on the beds at night will likely get the family through the week.

Children seem especially immune to cold, though possibly they keep warm whining about how bored they are with nothing to do (because cards, puzzles, board games and crayons no longer count in the electronic age). Surely they have friends they could go visit about now? And take an overnight bag with them?

Most pets will be just fine. Cats have a knack for finding the warmest spots in the house. As for your little spaniel, remember that Muffin is descended from wolves. She may not be able to take down an elk, but she can tolerate more cold than the naked ape can. If she suffers from arthritis, though, or if instead of a real dog you have a miniaturized freak of nature, you may need to temporarily sacrifice a down jacket to the cause and use it to line the dog bed.

Other details

By all means, make use of the neighbors with the incredibly noisy generator. They may have spent thousands of dollars on that baby, so they want to prove to themselves that they made a good investment. What better way than to magnanimously let you charge your cellphone and laptop and refill your water jugs? Seriously, you will be doing them a favor.

And once the county recreation centers are open again, you can go there for a shower. Usually the staff is understanding and won’t charge a usage fee. The public library will also reopen soon. It has internet, not to mention lights, heat, and tables where you can sit and gape at all the normal people who are simply going about their normal business, rather than escaping temporarily from the nineteenth century.

And one of these days, you will return from your excursion into the 21st century to find that you, too, have lights on. You will fire up the espresso machine and the Panini maker, crank up the heat, and turn on the wide-screen television to watch the news. “Wow,” you will say to yourself. “Look at that. There are still some people without power. I wonder how they can stand it?”





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