Back in October, the energy industry regulator, Ofgem, announced that due to Russia’s war with Ukraine, there is a possibility the UK could enter a “gas supply emergency” which could affect electricity supplies.
The worst case scenario would be the need to have planned power blackouts at peak times during the winter months, most likely between the hours of 4pm and 7pm, according to the National Grid. While it’s quite unlikely that this could happen, I do think it’s worth being reasonably prepared anyway for the lights to go out temporarily, just in case of general emergencies.
For example, in recent weeks some people who were already on smart meters were remotely switched to pre-payment contracts (they don’t need to come to your house to physically install a new meter any more) without being notified, so these customers didn’t know that they needed to top up their credit balances. This then led to their power supply unexpectedly being disconnected.
As another example, the house we live in is supplied by a nearby substation that’s occasionally prone to flooding in bad weather. It’s cold and dark outside, it’s lashing down with rain, and… the electricity goes off. We’ve learned from experience that it’s best to have a few things in place to put your mind at rest, just in case, and they’re very cheap and easy to sort out.
Going by past events I’d say the most important things to get right are:
- Emergency lighting
- Hazard reduction
- Emergency power
- Food and drink
- Morale & communication
It’s a really, really good idea to have some torches for moving around, and at least one lantern for staying still. You don’t need to spend a fortune, and may already own what you need.
We have an LED camping lantern here that cost about £20 (prices have gone up recently), and it runs off three possible sources of power. It takes batteries, and has a solar panel on the top, and a wind-up crank handle. It is not going to run out of juice at the wrong moment. As an added bonus there’s a USB port so you can charge a mobile phone from it if needed.
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I also put a couple of stick on push-button lights under the kitchen cupboard by the cooker, and in the bathroom. Why? Because it’s very hard to cook or go to the loo if you’re holding a torch, trust me, I’ve been there and I don’t want that for you. They’re the sort of thing people stick in dark wardrobes and I think I got mine from a department store for less than £5, although there’s a wider range at Amazon that tends to work out cheaper. Argos is definitely worth a look too for affordable torches, lanterns and other emergency lighting.
You could also have a string of solar lights in one or more of your rooms, as long as there’s enough light reaching the panel to charge them up in daylight hours. Another option is a magnetic light that you stick to the fridge or a metal shelf, which can be unstuck and taken round with you as an improvised torch. I have one stuck to the base of my bedside lamp, and am now able to regularly congratulate myself on my raw bedroom magnetism every time I retire to the boudoir. Ahem.
Moving on, a lot of people favour candles as a light source, and they’re definitely an option for some households, as long as you aren’t fumbling around in the dark with matches as your first port of call. Which leads neatly on to point two.
The two main things I try to keep in mind are tripping hazards and fire hazards.
You can reduce tripping hazards by trying to keep the place reasonably tidy and uncluttered, although I know that isn’t always possible with partners, pets and kids etc. Still, it’s good to try and it’s free. With pets, you could buy an LED light for their collar if you don’t have one already.
Candles are likely to be the biggest fire hazards, so think carefully about where they’re placed and what they’re resting on. Tea lights can become unexpectedly hot underneath in the wrong holder or left on a wooden surface, for example, and tall candles are easily knocked over.
We all know the drill about never leaving a burning candle unattended, but sometimes you don’t have a choice, which is why I tend to prefer an electric lantern.
If the power goes off in the depths of winter it can get cold fast, so have a think about how you’d keep warm. Staying in one room with the door shut tends to be the best idea, maybe with several extra layers of clothes, blankets and/or a sleeping bag.
There are lots of keep-warm tips out there at the moment because of the cost of living crisis and shocking gas price rises, so I won’t go on about that too much here, but it might be worth your time to do a little research if you haven’t already.
What would you need to keep running if there was a planned or unexpected power cut? Would you need batteries, a power bank, a portable charger, or anything else? You might not need too much, depending on your individual circumstances.
We have a couple of small power banks for phones and tablets, one of those miniature camping stoves with a tiny gas canister (outside use only because of carbon monoxide risk), and a half-sized camping kettle. In an emergency we’d be able to heat small amounts of water for hot drinks or hot water bottles, or warm up some soup, but that’s about it. The plan is to sit tight and conserve energy.
If you have more money, there are options such as solar power and generators, but that’s not exactly super-cheap or easy so it’s beyond the scope of this article. I’m going more in a girl scout ‘be prepared’ direction here rather than anything more heavy duty.
Food and drink
With planned blackouts you have the chance to prepare hot food or drinks ahead of time and keep them warm. If you already own a vacuum flask or a slow cooker, make the most of them.
A sudden loss of power is different. What food do you have in the house that’s shelf stable and can be eaten straight out of the packet, box or jar? I like to have a couple of things to hand, such as peanut butter and crackers, longlife tortilla wraps and a tin of mixed beans, or a can of rice pudding, as well as some energy bars or chocolate (it goes without saying that in most homes you will definitely have to hide the chocolate, and not tell anyone else it’s there).
If you want hot food, you might be able to use something you already own to heat things up outdoors, such as a barbecue or a camping stove, or indoors, such as the tops of some cleverly designed wood-burning stoves.
Morale and communication
A lot of people, especially kids, are afraid of the dark, so try to be calm and reassuring. It might also be kind to check in on nearby neighbours who live alone or who are vulnerable.
The data signal should be fine for mobile phones, but try not to over-use them to conserve battery life. You should be able to have a look at your local WhatsApp group, but you can get news updates from FM radio stations via a battery-powered or wind-up radio in an emergency.
Planned power cuts tend to have a major boredom factor after you’ve covered the basics of light, warmth, food and so on. The telly won’t work, and the Wi-Fi will be down, so think of other forms of entertainment, such as books, magazines and card games that don’t need power.
Last but not least, we have maintenance, which is usually free or very cheap. Check torches and emergency lights regularly to make sure they are in a convenient place, and have battery power or are charged up. Check and charge power banks regularly too, move winter blankets out of storage and into a convenient spot, and make sure stored food isn’t about to go out of date.
The acid test – turn the lights off
Try closing your eyes right now and think about what you’d have to do to get a light on if the power went out unexpectedly at home.
- What furniture might you bump into, and what might you trip over?
- Where’s the nearest torch or lamp/lantern, and would you have to scrabble around in a cupboard or drawer to find it?
- Would things work when you switched them on?
If you can’t answer those questions then it’s probably worth taking a moment to check you have the basics in place to get though a power cut.
Do you have any cost-effective or free tips for dealing with a loss of electricity? Please share them in the comments below.