Emergency shortages of electricity, water, food and fuel are a real possibility. Not only are they common in other parts of the world, but they happen in North America, too. Are you prepared to get your family through a shortage?
How to Prepare for Electricity Shortages
For most of us, electricity is an essential part of life. There is a very small segment of the population who manages without electricity. Even the Amish have non-electric substitutes that replace them fairly efficiently. For the rest of us, though, losing power even for a short time can cause a lot of difficulties.
Electricity shortages happen all the time, though.
During extreme weather, power lines can snap or otherwise affected, and some areas shut off electricity to try and keep everyone safe.
After all, if a power line is going to snap, far better for it not to be live!
Then there is the more routine business – power companies shut off electricity for maintenance, unpaid bills and sometimes just simple mix ups. A few weeks ago, we woke to no power in our little neighbourhood when a transformer blew outside our house.
It must have been a surprise to the dead crow we saw below the transformer!
And of course, there are times when we voluntarily go without electricity, like when we go camping. That’s when we get a warning that we will have no power. But most of the time there’s no warning at all.
So just how do we make sure we’re ready for electricity shortages, whatever the reason for it might be?
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Have alternative light sources
When the power goes out around here, the first thing I do is look around my neighbourhood to see if anyone has their lights on.
It’s rather silly of me since the guy across the road has solar outdoor lights and the farm at the top of the hill has a generator. I do it anyway, though. Most of us, I think, first notice that the lights aren’t working, and then we check to see if it’s just our house.
When you can’t flick on the lights, it quickly becomes clear how much we rely on it, especially at night. So be prepared!
When we were young, my parents had chamber oil lamps. They were kept on a shelf by themselves, easily accessible when the power went out. Since this is what ‘lights when the power is out’ meant to me, I was sure to get myself a couple of beautiful lamps.
Turns out I’m incredibly sensitive to lamp oil. I mean, really, really sensitive!
Light the lamp …. invisible knife slams me between the eyes, headache begins and vomiting happens. I can usually deal with headaches, after carrying around a brain tumour for more than a decade, but these are pretty rotten headaches, about equal with a sudden onset migraine.
So before you rely on oil lamps, make sure that everyone in the household can handle lamp oil. If there are no sensitivities, these are reliable, inexpensive and absolutely lovely. But you want to find out about sensitivities before any power shortages.
Candles are a pretty tried-and-true source of light, but they have definite drawbacks. They wear down fast, carry a high risk of accidental fire, and the light they provide is actually pretty limited.
Still, they can’t be beat for their storage ability.
It’s a really good idea to keep a large package of candles on hand – with matches or a lighter, of course. Almost anything heat-proof can serve as an emergency holder for stubbier candles like votives.
Make some high-quality LED flashlights a higher priority, though.
LED lights last forever – we replaced our fluorescent kitchen light with an LED one and it actually said that it’s good for 72 years. Years! So get yourself some good quality LED flashlights and keep them in a place where you can find them in the dark.
If power shortages don’t happen often, store them in a waterproof plastic container separate from those VERY expensive lithium batteries (and keep the batteries in their original packaging). Many tears will be shed if you grab your expensive flashlight and find that the expensive batteries have leached their acid just when you need it.
Keeping tech charged
Your tech – especially your smartphone – can be a lifesaver when the power goes out, especially if the phone or internet signal is still accessible. It’s worth while getting a good power bank so that you can keep your phone charged, and definitely keep it charged up. Treat it like your food storage – use it and charge it back up again regularly.
Keeping food from spoiling
If the power is only out for a short time, your fridge and freezer may keep cold long enough to protect your food. If you want to increase your chances of that happening, keep things as cold as possible.
Try to keep your freezer mostly full all of the time. When it isn’t full enough, add plastic pop bottles, half full of water, to bulk it out and hold the cold. The more compressed your freezer is, the less heat leaves it.
When the power goes out, grab a couple of those bottles and put them in a cooler bag to keep your milk and other perishables cold.
Just remember – open your fridge and freezer as little as possible if the power goes out.
Keep your car fueled
Do you know what happens when the power goes out?
You can’t fuel your car.
Most gas pumps these days are electric, so nothing is coming out of them. But even if you can find an older, active pump (there is one in our village), the line up is going to go around the block. People are going to filling up to get home, check on loved ones, fill generators, etc.
Keep your car fueled at all times and make sure you have a spare tank’s worth of fuel on hand.
Get a generator
I am NOT a huge fan of gasoline generators.
Let me make that really clear up front.
They smell horrible and they’re very loud. We lived in the woods for three years, surrounded by cottagers who ran their weekend getaways on 24/7 generator use. Our poor dog would be in panic mode at the noise the entire time. And not only are they noisy and smelly, but they cost a lot to run constantly. And they are absolutely, totally, completely NOT sustainable because they are relying on gasoline!
But if you are very reliant on electricity? That is, if you need a CPAP machine or breathing apparatus or some other electrically-powered device to keep you or a loved one alive? In those cases, generators are amazing – if you have a stockpile of fuel to run them AND you have backup plans to limit their use to emergencies.
Even if you set up solar power and batteries, it is a good idea to have a generator when there’s a serious health condition to consider.
After all, do you think the power’s going to go out when the batteries are fully charged and Grandma’s been feeling relatively healthy, or do you think it will happen when the skies have been cloudy for two weeks, the life-saving devices have been in constant use, and you’re already wondering if a hospital visit might be in order?
Emergencies never happen when everything’s going perfectly, do they? That is why we prep.
Find a source
In a large-scale electrical shortage, like a natural disaster, the government will often provide a supply of electricity. Find out where your local electric hotspots are and keep a record of them.
Don’t forget you can use that charged Pay-As-You-Go phone to call emergency services and ask for advice.
I go into this in a bit more detail in my post When the Power Goes Out, and you might like to read that, too.
How to Prepare for a Fuel Shortage
Most people have had to deal with power outages at one time or another, and we have all learned how to adapt – even if adapting means hunting madly for a place with power. And even if we’ve never experienced food and water shortages, we’ve heard about them and we know they’re a thing. So most people recognize that they can happen.
But if there’s a fuel shortage, far too many of us are woefully unprepared. It just doesn’t seem to occur to the average person that they might pull into the gas station and see a ‘No gas for sale’ sign.
They’re just as possible as other shortages and they are, in fact, quite common in many parts of the world. I bought a generator for a family in Africa that I sponsor, and there are frequently times when there is simply no fuel to be had.
A fuel shortage can be caused by:
- Disputes between fuel providers and their suppliers or employees
- A long term, large scale electrical shortage causing the shutdown of gas stations.
- The slow reduction in fossil fuels creating physical, financial, or legal restrictions which will stop us using fuel
In these situations, there are no ways of acting suddenly, so it is vital to be prepared well in advance. Here are some things we can do to prepare for a fuel shortage.
Use less fuel
Have a plan for how you can use less fuel if the shortage looks like it might affect you for more than a few days.
Of course, take a look at what else you might need to keep on hand if you can’t get into town for a while.
When we lived out at the cabin, we often had times when winter snow, spring mud making the roads a soggy mess, and flooding across the roads meant we couldn’t get off the mountain for several weeks. We lost track of how often we’d call the roads department and say ‘Hey, guys, the road’s washed out again. No, we’re fine for as long as we need to be, but we thought you should know.’
If you live in a more urban area, is it possible to walk to the shops? A child’s wagon makes a great grocery tote. Or you can get all fancy and serious about it and pick up this amazing (seriously, I’m coveting!) Picnic Time Collapsible ‘Adventure Wagon with All-Terrain Wheels’ and the cooler insert that goes with it. And in between emergencies, it doubles as a picnic wagon … although if that’s the stated purpose, maybe I shouldn’t say that’s what it doubles as that?
Consider working from home, if that’s possible, and see if you can move around your work days so that you travel less. Carpooling and public transport are great ways to split fule costs.
Have a low-fuel or fuel-free transport alternative
You really have to get around, but your regular vehicle drinks gasoline like it’s free? Perhaps there is an alternative that uses less fuel.
What you choose will depend on your location.
If you live in the city and are close to the places you need to go, a bicycle is a good choice.
If you live farther out and need to travel greater distances, a low-fuel motorbike or scooter could be the answer.
Children too small to ride their own bike can be carted along in a child trailer. But of course, you need to choose between children (which ride in a child trailer) and groceries and supplies (which go in a cargo trailer).
Some people who live rurally can use horses for travel. I’ve often thought, driving through the country, that those beautiful horses would be great demand if we ever needed fuel-free transportation!
Keep a stockpile of fuel
This is a great idea, and you should definitely do it. But …. many people do it wrong!
The most common thing is that people buy a pile of jerry cans, fill them and then stash them away in a safe place long term.
This is not wheat berries in a sealed container! (And even that, please don’t hoard.)
Gas and diesel has a healthy life of just THREE to SIX months in a jerry can. After that, it’s useless.
If you want a stockpile, treat it like you do your pantry. Fill up jerry cans with NO MORE THAN 4 month’s worth of regular fuel use, put date stickers on them, and cycle them.
When your fuel is low, top up from the oldest can and fill a new one.
Two caveats – if your engines is new and very sensitive, the sort that requires high-end gas, you might not be able to do this. It tends to wear them down. The other caveat is that four months of fuel is extremely flammable.
Store it safely, let your insurance company know, and be willing to swallow the premium they make you pay.
Always keep your tanks full
When we lived out on the mountain, we learned one important rule about deal with fuel shortages – never, ever let your tank get below empty.
You rarely get much warning when a fuel shortage hits, and most people don’t find out about it until it’s been going for a while. By then, it’s too late.
A few years ago, two cargo ships were late making their deliveries to Nova Scotia. (Yes, just two. It’s a small province!) We found out when we went into town to get groceries. As usually, we topped up with fuel on our way into town, and we had five jerry cans filled up at home. When we saw the signs at the gas station, warning that they were out of Regular and Select gas and only had Premium, we knew to minimize our errands and get back home quickly.
Never let your tank drop below half.
This could make the difference between getting things done and not getting things done during a gas shortage, or it could mean you have enough fuel to get home.
Have wood burning and coal burning heating options
Finally, if your home uses gas, petrol, or diesel to run your heating, then you will need to have a few alternative options.
A simple metal stove which burns wood or coal, has a chute to direct smoke out the window, and warms up the room quickly, could be a literal life saver if you need fuel to heat your home.
How to Prepare for a Food Shortage
If you couldn’t get to the grocery store, how long could you last on what is currently in your house?
What if the food delivery trucks couldn’t supply the store? Most grocery stores maintain just a THREE day supply of food, operating on a Just-In-Time delivery system.
Most of us really don’t like thinking about this one, but food shortages can happen to any of us. They really don’t just happen to ‘other people’.
Keep a stockpile
The average household has 3-30 days worth of food on hand at all times.
If that’s you, start building that up to something closer to 90 days. After that, you can increase your storage if you have the room. But 90 days worth of food puts you in a better position that almost everyone around you.
You’re going to want to store foods with a long life, food that will stay good (if properly stored) for at least two years.
Good ideas include:
- tinned goods
- jarred goods (including homemade)
- dry beans and nuts
- dry fruit and vegetables
- whole grains
- dried, sealed meat and hard cheese
Of course nothing that goes into your storage should be left indefinitely. There’s a preparedness saying that you should store what you use and use what you store. Just be sure to replace what you use.
Be wary of damp! Recently I discovered that our dehumidifer wasn’t working because I reached for a box of salt and it fell apart in a soggy mess. The salt had absorbed the moisture in the air of our basement pantry. Good for the rest of my food, but not so good for my salt. (What was wrong with the dehumidifier? Don’t laugh, but we turned it off for cleaning and no one remember to turn it back on!)
Store your food off the floor and definitely away from water leaks. Food in paper containers will do as my salt did – absorb the water in the air. Repackage salt, baking soda and other items that come in paper. And of course anything that has been opened is no good for long-term storage. My favourite way storage containers are gallon glass jars.
Picking the right type of food
The worst mistake I see when people start storing foods is that they limit themselves to just a small selection.
There is only so long you’re going to live on canned Spam and ramen noodles. Actually, depending on your blood pressure, that could be a very short time.
You need tinned and jarred meats, fruit and vegetables. You need grains and legumes, too. These are pretty basic for nutrition.
But you need pure and simple calories, too, and pleasure foods. Wrap chips, sweets and chocolate well in waterproof storage containers and don’t forget the building blocks of delicious baked goods – you really do need sugar, chocolate chips, dried eggs (and no, you really can’t dry your own). Ghee is a fabulous shelf-stable substitute for butter, or you can puree cooked white beans.
There’s something else I need to address. Some people will buy huge containers that are out of proportion for their family size. Now, with six in my house, I might be able to buy commercial tins of soup, because my family will eat a crockpot full of soup and a whole box of crackers at a sitting. But I’m not going to buy 25 pounds of lentils and hope to eat them before the world ends. This will be very dependent on your family. My sponsored family in Africa goes through a 50 pound bag of beans and one of rice in just three months, but both of those would last my family more than a year.
Once you’ve opened these large packages, you either need to repackage it or use it before vermin, fungi and damp can get to it. Either buy your food in smaller packages or be sure to repackage for storage.
Grow your own and know where food grows
Fresh food can be very hard to get by during times of crisis, so it is important to have access to your own fresh food wherever you are. Growing some food in your garden or an allotment are great ideas. But if you can’t grow your own, consider finding out about community gardens, ornamental edible plants people grow, and local wild edibles. Don’t go for anything that is questionable, but crab apples and blackberries are safe bets.
Learn where collection zones are
Like electricity and other necessities, there are official government agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, that operate to deliver food to people who need it during a crisis. And yes, that crisis can be personal or widespread.
If you find yourself without food, find out where your nearest food bank is and see if they can help you out. They are not intended to replace all of your groceries, but will usually provide about three days worth of food.
How to Prepare for a Water Shortage
This is one that I struggle with – even though I lived off-grid, deep in the woods, for three years. After all, not only am I Canadian, living in a country blessed with abundant fresh water, but I am also from Nova Scotia.
Too much water tends to by my problem, not a lack.
For most of us in North America, we think of clean water shortages as something that affects third world nations. And it certainly does. My friend’s daughter was recently hospitalized with typhoid fever, an illness contracted only through drinking water contaminated with feces. They drink municipal water in a major city in Nigeria – water that is supposed to be tested and safe, according to their government.
Developed countries can and do suffer from water shortages, though.
During natural disasters, water may be very scarce, or at least clean, fresh, healthy water may be. Often whole cities are supplied by a single reservoir too. Should there be a problem with this water supply, such as drying up or contamination, then you will need to find water elsewhere.
And when a drought strikes, local governments often enforce restrictions on how and when water is used, in order to help it go further. A sure way to incur the wrath of your neighbours, and a lot of calls to the local authorities, is to water your lawn or fill your swimming pool in the middle of water shortages when everyone else is restricting their usage!
So what can everyday people like you or I do to ensure that we have enough water to last us during a shortage? There are several ways of prepping for such an event:
Do not overuse the water you have
It makes sense, right?
During water shortages, you need to use it carefully and cleverly. We all know the basics: don’t wash your car, don’t water your lawn, etc.
However, there are other ways of using water efficiently.
People have told me that it’s common in the US to wash dishes by wiping them under a stream of running water. A much better way is to fill two tubs, or both sides of a double sink, with hot water – one soapy and one clean. Use the soapy water for rinsing and dip in clean water to rinse. If you move quickly, you can wash a lot of dishes in those two tubs of water.
When cooking vegetables, save and refrigerate and reuse the water up to 48 hours and then use it to make stew.
And definitely skip your long showers for times when water is abundant. A shallow bath rather than a shower might not feel as comforting and luxurious, but it will still get you clean during a water shortage.
Keep a rainwater collector
The water reservoir for your community may have dried up or been contaminated even if the rain is still coming. A rainwater collector can be a lifesaver during shortages.
If you have ways to purify water, remember that your house is a huge rainwater collector. The bigger the surface of the collector, after all, the more water it collects per minute, and your roof likely has a lot of surface.
Keep your gutters clean and place barrels under them. At the very least, you have water for cleaning outside, watering plants or giving to pets.
If you can purify it, you have indoor washing or even drinking water. Rainwater is exceptional for washing hair, by the way.
Have a water filter
Whether you plan on collecting your own water or not, it’s a good idea to have a good water filter. They’re very advanced – so much so that you can all but completely eliminate toxins, bacteria and parasites.
With a good water filter system, you can safely drink rainwater, and you can purify contaminated tap water or recover water that has been left in a jug and gone a bit stale. This can save your life during shortages.
Stockpile sugary drinks and mild alcoholic beverages
Strange advice, I know! Sugary drinks and alcohol slow down how quickly you hydrate, so it’s usually pretty poor advice to tell you to drink them.
Unfortunately, fresh or bottled water has a nasty habit of going stale very quickly. It can also grow all sorts of nasty bacteria.
In a long term water shortage, slow hydration is better than no hydration, and both sugar and alcohol help keep bacteria at bay.
Buy and eat watery fruits and vegetables
Even when there are water shortages, life usually carries on as normal. We buy groceries, cook normal meals, and take the children to school. But what groceries do we buy if the store is all out of drinks?
Simple – look for watery plants.
Many plant foods have high fluid and mineral content, which makes them excellent for hydration. If you can find them, buy cucumbers, oranges, tomatoes, radishes, pineapple, coconut, melon, etc. Tinned versions work, too. Eat more watery foods and try to use them to stay as hydrated as possible.