The High Cost of a Power Outage

When homes lose electricity, residents can pay—but these six steps can help reduce those costs.


When the lights go out, as they did for millions of people across the Midwest and East Coast after a storm last Friday, the costs can quickly add up. First, there’s the cost of food going bad, which it starts to do after the power is out for around four hours. According to the Health and Human Services Department, any type of thawing meat or poultry should be discarded, along with soft cheeses and dairy. For a family with a full-stocked freezer and fridge, those guidelines could easily result in $200 of tossed food.

The next big expense is alternate housing if your home becomes uninhabitable. In a heat wave such as the one experienced this week, as many people’s power remained out, that can happen in a matter of days. When stuffy homes reach 90 degrees or above, it can be hard to breathe, much less sleep. Hotels can seem like the only option, especially for families with young children.

Incidental costs include items that keep the house lit after dark: Flashlights, D-batteries (stores quickly run out, so it’s best to stock up in advance), candles, matches, and other battery-powered equipment. Some desperate neighbors even decide to spring for generators, which can cost anywhere from $200 to well over $1,000. If your power goes out once or twice a year, as it often does to for Washington, D.C. area residents, that investment could eventually pay off.

Of course, these costs don’t even begin to get at the emotional distress and health problems experienced by the most vulnerable residents: Newborn babies, who are still learning how to self-regulate body temperature; the elderly; and anyone going through chemotherapy or with another type of health challenge. Not everyone can make the best of the situation and carry on in 100 degree heat.

So, in the wake of a major power outage such as the one experienced this week, are there steps we can take to prepare for such emergencies, and minimize the impact on our budgets and lives? Here are six ideas:

Pre-arrange an alternate housing plan. If you have close friends in the area, perhaps you can agree that you will host each other if your own homes become unlivable, at least for a few days. Or, research in advance to find the cheapest hotel rooms within an hour or so drive. It can be hard to do this when you have no power or internet connection, so printing out an “escape route” and having it handy can be a huge help.

Stock up on dried fruits, granola bars, and other pantry items. When refrigerated food goes bad, it can be hard to find an affordable meal. Items that stay fresh regardless of the power status, such as cereals, rice cakes, peanut butter, and other packaged foods, can come to the rescue of rumbling stomachs.

Prepare an emergency kit. Since laundry machines no longer work once the power goes out, be sure to have at least once clean change of clothes for each family member tucked away in an emergency kit. That kit should also include comfort items, especially for children (such as a teddy bear), a first-aid kit, any necessary medicine, such as pain relief medication, as well as water and portable food items.

Store back-up lighting. Plenty of D-batteries, fully-charged flashlights and lanterns, and candles can be a lifesaver in a black-out. Once the power goes out, stores often run out of these essential supplies. A battery-powered fan could also make a hot home a bit more bearable.

Keep emergency cash hidden somewhere in your home. Credit cards and ATMs can stop working during emergencies as well, and you might need money for a quick getaway, or to purchase food and water.

Make copies of essential documents. If you have to leave your home in a hurry, as residents evacuated for tornadoes, fires, or floods sometimes must, then you might not have time to sort through file folders. That’s why it can be useful to keep a copy of any insurance information, contact information for friends and family members, identification, and other important papers in a portable file folder.

With a little prep work, power outages, while still incredibly inconvenient, can end up taking a smaller toll on our bank accounts.

How do you prepare for emergencies?

Twitter: @alphaconsumer