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Preparing for When the Power Goes Out
Sound Mind Investing

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Preparing for When the Power Goes Out

By Joseph Slife for
Sound Mind Investing –It's difficult for us to imagine, but people actually got along without electric power for thousands of years. Some people still get along without it today. But in 21st-century America, not being able to switch on the lights or turn on are things we just aren't prepared for — literally.

Even so, power outages do happen (you can track them here), and sometimes they last a while. So preparing for a power failure is a wise investment, even if of a different sort than we usually discuss here.

Fortunately, most outages aren't as severe as the pair of week-long outages endured by Sound Mind Investing's home city of Louisville, Ky., during the past year. But if you're not prepared, even a short power outage can create serious challenges. And if the weather is really bad (such as during Louisville's winter ice storm in January 2009), the implications can quickly escalate.

To be sure, the definition of "prepared" will vary depending on where you live and the events surrounding the outage. Being snowed in without power is quite different than having a spring thunderstorm knock the power out during a warm evening down south. But no matter the time or place, the general areas of preparation remain the same.

Here's a rundown of the top preparation categories, plus ballpark figures of what a "readiness investment" is likely to cost.

Light. There's no substitute for investing in a few well-built flashlights and fresh batteries (hand-crank LED lights are also fantastic for such occasions).

A battery-operated lantern that offers general rather than focused illumination is also well worth it. (Experts say it's better not to use candles and oil lamps because of the fire hazard.)

Cost of "light" preparation: $50-$100.

Communications. Cordless telephones don't work when the power fails, and cell phones will run out of juice within a few hours. So be sure you have at least one corded phone in your house. (Of course, it won't work either if the lines are down).

For your cell phone(s), buy a charging adapter that plugs into the lighter in your car. Also, get a battery-operated or hand-cranked radio to keep you abreast of news and weather information.

Cost of "communications" preparation: $75-$150.

Heat. If you live in a cold climate, you'll need to figure out a method for keeping at least one room warm. If you already have gas logs, a wood-burning stove, or a fireplace, you should be in good shape (although without an electric blower, a fireplace isn't a very efficient heat source). If you don't have an alternate source of heat, a propane or kerosene heater may be a good option.

Another option worthy of strong consideration is a portable generator. A generator will allow you to run an electric heater, as well as other small appliances and items like a laptop computer (so you can work while waiting for the power to be restored).

While simple extension cords may work fine for brief outages, having a transfer switch installed by an electrician allows you to connect the generator to your electric panel, offering power throughout your home (though you'll be able to run only a limited number of devices at any given time). This may be overkill for some, but those in cold climates will sure appreciate being able to heat the whole house during prolonged outages. Speak with an electrician for details if you're interested in this more robust option.

Cost of "heat" preparation: $100-$1,500.

Water. A secondary source of water is especially important if you have a well with an electric pump. Once the pump stops, the water stops, too. But even if you have city- or county-supplied water, your water could be affected if the power is out long enough.

So keep plenty of bottled water on hand. A few cases at a warehouse club or grocery store shouldn't cost more than $10-$20.

Food/cooking. Assuming you're not snowed in or have a tree blocking your driveway, you may be able to drive to the nearest eatery that still has power. But that isn't always possible. So keep food on hand that doesn't require cooking or refrigeration, such as crackers, peanut butter, snack bars, bread, and canned fruit (be sure you have a manual can opener!).

This is one time that buying in bulk may not be a cost-saver — giant cans of food may go bad without refrigeration if you can't finish them in one sitting. If you can plan ahead and stock mostly items you'll eat eventually anyway, your emergency food pantry doesn't need to cost much extra. Just be sure to rotate the food periodically to keep it fresh.

A simple propane camp stove is a great item to have on hand when the power is down. You can also cook on an outdoor grill if you have one — unless it's pouring down rain or your grill is snowed under. (Due to the carbon monoxide danger, don't bring a stove or grill into your house or garage.)

Cost of food/cooking preparation: $25-$150 (perhaps a bit more initially if setting up an emergency pantry from scratch, but you'll eat the food eventually).

Clearly some households in certain climates/locations are better able to "rough it" for brief periods of time than others. But even for those needing more extensive preparation, the cost of moderate-to-strong measures is likely to cost less than $1,000 for most households — perhaps twice that if you go the robust route of wiring your electric panel for a small generator.

It's an investment, but the peace of mind you and your family will receive from knowing you're prepared is an ongoing dividend. And if the power does eventually go out, the payoff will rapidly appreciate.

(For more preparation helps, download a Power Outage Checklist from the American Red Cross—PDF.)

Sound Mind Investing exists to help individuals understand and apply biblically-based principles for making spending and investing decisions in order that their future financial security would be strengthened, and their giving to worldwide missionary efforts for the cause of Christ would accelerate. In other words, we want to help you have more so that you can give more.

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