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13 Things You Should Never Do During a Power Outage

Do the wrong thing and you could put your life in danger.

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Power outages

Power outages can be a truly terrifying experience. One minute, you’re casually enjoying dinner or an evening TV show, and the next your home is pitch black and completely silent. While there are a lot of things you can do to prepare for a power outage, it can still come as quite the shock. Unfortunately, a lot of the things you’ve been taught to do during a power outage can actually be quite dangerous. Read on for things you should never do during a power outage.

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Light candles

Surprisingly, you won’t want to resort to pre-19th century lighting methods when the electricity is out. “Candles are wonderful, but they tip over, and they can cause a fire,” says Jim Judge, EMT-P, CEM, member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory. They also don’t provide strong light, he says, so you’re better off sticking with a bright lantern. You’ll also want to be careful about how a power outage can affect your home security.

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Let your phone die

When you can’t watch TV and have barely enough light to read a book, playing on your phone or iPad for hours might seem like the only appealing option. But you might want to put it down to save battery, says Ed Lounsbury licensed electrician with T.Webber Plumbing, Heating, Air & Electric. “Save your phone until you need it,” he says. “If the power goes out for a few days you might need it for emergency services.” If you can’t resist opening apps, make sure you juice up a portable phone charger in case your lifeline runs out of battery and you need to call 911. Here are some of the secrets a 911 operator won’t tell you.

Plug the power plug with connected plugs.nednapa/Shutterstock

Keep electronics plugged in

You should really unplug electronics before the storm hits, because a lightning strike creates a massive surge and could damage your equipment. But if you didn’t see the power outage coming, taking plugs out around the house could still offer protection against the electrical surge of the power coming back. “It’s always smart to unplug them, but there are ways to prevent them from being damaged,” says Lounsbury. Install a surge protector in an electric panel, or plug sensitive electronics into a surge-protected power strip, he suggests. Check out these other ways to stay safe and dry during a thunderstorm.

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Unplug everything

All that said, you should still keep one lamp plugged in during a power outage. “Leave one light on somewhere you’re going to see it when the power goes back on,” says Judge.  Learn how to manage 10 other everyday emergencies.

Abstract hand a young man is opening a refrigerator doorBDKKEC072/Shutterstock

Open the fridge

Every time you open the fridge or freezer door, you let cold air out—and it won’t be re-cooled until the power comes back on. Unopened, though, your fridge can keep your food at a safe temperature for at least four hours, so try to resist opening it unless absolutely necessary, says Judge. Learn how a quarter can tell you if your food went bad during a power outage.

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Leave your freezer half-empty

Food in a full freezer will stay good for at least 48 hours, but that number drops to 24 hours for a half-full freezer, says Judge. Think about it this way: Your ice and frozen food are like ice packs, insulating the entire freezer so the unit doesn’t have to waste energy cooling empty space. Be prepared if there’s a storm in the weather forecast. “If you don’t have a full freezer, put water bottles in and let it freeze,” suggests Judge. “You can even take gallon-sized freezer bags to fill them up with water and put them in. They will fill in any space.” If the power outage is caused by a storm, you’ll also want to brush up on the things you should never do at home during severe weather.

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Ignore traffic rules

Drivers can get confused at intersections when stoplights aren’t working, so stay alert and brush up on your traffic rules. “Oftentimes when the power is out, people blow through intersections,” says Judge. Treat it like a four-way stop, letting the cars drive through in the order they arrive.

 Gasoline Portable Generator on the House Construction Site. Close up on Mobile Backup Generator .Standby Generator - Outdoor Power EquipmentRadovan1/Shutterstock

Put a generator in your garage

Hopefully, you already know that your generator gives off toxic carbon monoxide, so you should keep it in open air away from the house. But even with the garage door open, a garage is still too enclosed and too close to your home, says Judge. Leave it at least 20 feet from home to avoid the fumes. “It’s a silent killer,” Judge says. “It’s a colorless, odorless gas, and it doesn’t take long to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.” You could also try adopting one of these tricks: this is why Disney World rarely has power outages.

Close up of brown wood roof shingles.THALERNGSAK MONGKOLSIN/Shutterstock

Build a shelter too small for your generator

Because you can’t leave your generator in the garage, you’ll need to build a shelter to keep it safe and dry, especially during heavy winds or snow. “The best bet is to build a wooden roof shelter over it so that it’s not in direct contact with the elements,” says Lounsbury. “A lot of people build them too small, and it ends up melting the plastic on the sides.”

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Forget to load up on water

Before a big storm, you probably make sure your pantry is stocked with nonperishable food, but don’t forget about bottled water. If the power outage messes with water systems and causes a boil-water alert, you’ll want to have safe drinking water on hand. Judge recommends having one gallon of water for each person per day without electricity and having water for pets too. If you don’t want to shell out for store-bought water, empty and rinse old soda bottles or other big jugs to fill them with clean water before the storm hits, suggests Judge. Knowing how to get access to clean water is just one of the proven skills to survive any disaster.

Electric diesel generator for emergency power.Spok83/Shutterstock

Backfeed your generator

You might be tempted to hook up a portable generator to your home’s main panel or dryer outlet so it “backfeeds” power to your whole home. Don’t do it. You won’t be the only one to suffer if something goes wrong. “It is completely dangerous because if they don’t shut off their main breaker, they’re putting power through the grid,” says Lounsbury. The workers trying to fix the problem won’t be expecting such high voltage and could end up with a fatal shock. For everyone’s sake, play it safe and use your generator as intended. Learn the truth behind 11 deadly myths about electricity.

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Use a flashlight you haven’t touched in ages

Don’t be surprised if your battery-powered radio or flashlight won’t turn on when you need it most. You might think the battery is dead, but it could be a deeper issue, says Judge. “Over time, those batteries will leach acid that will get into the contacts,” he says. To make sure your devices stay fresh, he recommends having rechargeable LED flashlights on hand for emergencies, but keeping batteries out of your other lights and radios until you need them.

Gas pumps on gas station for refilling fuelMarko Rupena/Shutterstock

Go to the closest gas station

During major power outages, don’t be surprised if your go-to station off the highway runs out of gas. “People are evacuating and using main thoroughfares and using those gas stations,” says Judge. “You could drive a mile up the highway in a side road and fuel is readily available.” If the power outage happens in certain seasons you’ll need to be extra prepared. Here’s what to know about winter power outages.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.