How to make it through a blackout

Blackouts – they are a fact of Aussie life. No, we’re not talking about what 18 year olds do on a Friday night. We’re talking about when the electricity goes out. In many parts of Australia, summer means the wet season. And the wet season means torrential rain, followed usually by flash flooding and loss of power to the home.

While blackouts may be novel for about 10 minutes – where you light those candles and play a heady game of Monopoly with your kids – the reality is that blackouts can be annoying and potentially dangerous for you, your family and your pets. Though, there are a number of things you can do to ensure minimal disruption during blackouts. To those living towards the north of Australia, these following guidelines are sure to be common sense and routine, but it can’t hurt to have a refresher crash course on what to do in a blackout. Use these tips to stay well-prepared this coming storm season.

How do I prepare for a blackout?

It can be impossible to predict exactly when a blackout will occur, but coming into the storm season – i.e. November through February in most parts of Australia – it pays to be prepared and stock up on the following necessary items:

  • Torch, ideally a crank powered model
  • Batteries
  • Candles
  • Matches
  • Fire extinguisher and fire retardant blanket
  • First aid kit
  • Radio, ideally a crank powered model
  • Bottled water and non-perishable foods e.g. canned and packaged goods.

Hot Tip: If the electricity goes out, or you suspect it will shortly, turn off all but one light so you’ll know when the power returns.

What should I do in a blackout?

Stay safe and informed. Was there a lightning strike that downed a powerline or a tree trunk? Report it to your utilities provider and stay well away from the area. Be sure to keep abreast of any news from your provider about the outage as well. Either call them using your landline (write down the number in preparation for this), use your smartphone’s data connection to check for updates on their website, or use a radio to listen for updates about your neighborhood.

Leave the fridge door closed to keep cold air in and prevent spoilage. Loss of power often causes nothing more than minor disruption. If a blackout persists, it can cost you a fridge-load of perishable food. To keep your food cool, minimize snacking from the fridge during the outage!

Once the power is back on, use a fridge thermometer to assess whether food spoilage is likely. Food requiring refrigeration will go off after two hours at a temperature of 4°C or more. If in doubt, throw it out.

And remember; if the power is going to be out for several hours, it’s perfectly acceptable to have ice cream for dinner. Otherwise, it’s just going to go to waste!

Take care if you have a preexisting medical condition. For anyone taking medications that require refrigeration, consider contacting a pharmacist either in person or on the phone about the efficacy of these medicines post-blackout.

More importantly, anyone who relies on life-sustaining, electrical, medical equipment needs to have a backup plan for power outages, and should alert their provider about their situation long before such an event occurs.

In the event that such equipment is (or suspected of being) compromised during an outage, call emergency services immediately.

Turn off and disconnect electrical equipment. In the event of a power surge or a lightning strike, appliances and electronics can be damaged and may even pose a safety risk. Protect yourself by ensuring all your outlets are safe for use (see an electrician about this) and that you’re using surge protected powerboards wherever possible. Finally, make a round trip of your house before a storm hits and unplug devices that could be affected by a power surge (e.g. computers, TVs).

Switch off your smartphone’s WiFi mode. There is a setting on modern mobile phones that stops the device from searching for a WiFi signal. Turn it off because (a) your modem or router will be disconnected anyways, and (b) it’ll conserve your phone’s battery power. Whether you use your phone as an emergency communications device or for playing games in the dark – staying connected can be a smart move in the long run.

10 Fun Things to Do in a Blackout:

Once you’ve got all the necessary safety precautions out of the way, a blackout provides a great opportunity to switch off and engage with the people around you. Here are some activities you can do without power:

  1. Play board or card games with your family or housemates. Dust off that old Monopoly set and see who can come out the richest in your household. Board games are especially fun by candle or torchlight and it’s a great way to catch up with people on a better level in this busy, ever-connected world of ours.
  2. Read! Sit down with your favourite book by candle or torchlight and zone out until you fall asleep.
  3. Eat the ice cream before it goes off!
  4. Lego! Now’s a good time to sit down with your kids and see if you can out-build them.
  5. Listen to the radio or crank tunes on your – hopefully – charged laptop.
  6. If safe to do so, make a fire pit, roast some marshmallows and make billy tea. The fireplace can also be used, but this can be unpleasant in summer.
  7. If you’ve always wanted to write a book, there’s no better mood-setter and time like a blackout to put pen to paper.
  8. Look at the stars: The lack of ambient light means the stars are often more visible.
  9. If the power is still out in the day, all of the rain likely means there is some gardening to do. Bust out the clippers and set to work!
  10. Simply talk with your loved ones. If you’ve been working all week, you’ve more than likely got some catching up to do. This can be a great opportunity to reconnect and ask them about their week.

What are some of the biggest Aussie blackouts to occur?

While power is mostly restored by energy companies beavering away within the hour, many people are unlucky enough to go without for a lot longer. This particular author recalls one time around 2006 the power was flickering on and off – mostly off – for about a week. (Read: Bathing in the pool.) Here are some of the biggest blackouts Aussies have faced recently:

  • January 16, 2007: Blackouts affected 200,000 people thanks to ongoing bushfires in Victoria
  • January 30, 2010: Much of Darwin and the outlying areas experienced a blackout thanks to a lightning storm, starting at around 6am, with power restored at 4.30pm.
  • February 3, 2011: Cyclone Yasi affected much of North Queensland. 170,000 homes lost electricity as winds exceeded 300km/h.
  • Australia Day Weekend, 2013: Cyclone Oswald hit South East Queensland and around 250,000 people were affected by power outages. Power was only fully restored after 10 days.

Blackouts in Australia are often the byproduct of devastating natural disasters. From bushfires down south, to storms up north, Australia sees a range of natural disasters every summer. Many Australians are left without power for at least some periods during summer, and while many are prepared, many others are not.

If you follow these tips before a blackout, you can make the experience more bearable and safer.

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