A woman and child look at a mobile phone under a blanket, as they research what to do before, during, and after a winter power outage

A wintertime power outage can be a frigid affair. Whether a powerful ice storm damages your power lines or they're blown down by harsh winter winds, there's no telling how long it'll take for the power to come back on. Take a little time to learn what you can do before, during, and after a power outage to keep your family safe and warm until the lights (and heat) return.

How to prepare before the power goes out

Besides getting your home ready for winter before the temperature drops, there are a few more things you can do to make sure your home is always prepped for a winter power outage.

If you live in a rural area or a community that's prone to prolonged power outages, it's wise to invest in a gas generator to keep some lights on, charge your phone, run a space heater, and prevent costly food spoilage by keeping your fridge and freezer on while the power is out. Plus, having an alternative heat source like a fireplace, wood stove, or kerosene heater can keep you nice and warm — but make sure you learn how to safely operate your generator or heat source before firing it up to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Any additional heat source must also be installed or inspected by a licensed professional to ensure all safety codes are met. To make sure you're operating your fireplace as safely as possible, always double-check that chimney flues and heat shields are regularly cleaned and inspected to avoid any flammable chemical build-up. If you're using an alternative heat source, be sure to reach out to your group's licensed insurance broker to learn about your options and how they might affect your insurance coverage needs.

Quick tip: If you've recently installed an electric garage door opener or another system that relies solely on electricity, learn to operate it manually before a power outage.

In the event of a power outage, you'll want to have access to at least three days' worth of supplies for each member of your household (including pets). Keep a well-stocked winter storm emergency kit on hand with plenty of LED flashlights and spare batteries and store it where everyone can easily track it down in the dark.

Putting together your emergency kit? Check these items off your list:

Winter storm emergency kit

  • A portable charger for your cell phone
  • Cash
  • Wood or fuel for your stove or heater
  • A list of emergency contacts
  • A first aid kit
  • Bottled water
  • Candles, matches, and a lighter
  • A flashlight and extra batteries
  • Warm blankets
  • Non-perishable food (and pet food for Fido)

What to do when the power is out

As soon as you notice the power has gone out, check your local hydro map on your cell phone if you have access to mobile data. Many utilities companies have an app or will provide outage updates on their website, along with an estimated repair time. You can also easily report power outages online. If your cell phone doesn't have data or you're trying to preserve its battery life, look around at your neighbours' houses to check if their power is out too. If you notice that all the lights on your street are out, call your hydro company to report the problem.

If you see lights are still on throughout your neighbourhood or there are no power outage reports on your utility provider's website, check to see if there's a problem with your own breaker panel or fuse box — and if you can't safely locate and repair the issue yourself, call your hydro company or a registered electrician who can come investigate.

Keep these tips in mind while you wait for the heat to come back on:

  • Pull your plugs. Unplug as many appliances as possible in case there's a surge when the power comes back on. If your power is out because of a tripped breaker or blown fuse, be sure to pull the plugs before you try fixing the problem.
  • Layer up and stick together. Put on your layers, making sure your feet and head are covered to keep in your body's natural heat, and grab a cozy blanket for warmth. Still feeling the chill? Snuggle up on the couch with your partner, kids, or pets and get warmer together.
  • Keep the cool air where it belongs. Leave your freezer and fridge doors closed to keep food from spoiling during the power outage. While it might seem tempting to take frozen food outside and stash it in the snow, it could thaw when the sun comes out and attract hungry animals. (Did you know that a full freezer can keep food frozen for up to 36 hours when the door is kept closed?)
  • Never leave a burning candle unattended. If you're using candles as a source of light in your home, always keep the wicks short, move candles to a stable, flat surface, and if you must leave the room for any reason, always blow out your burning candles to help safeguard your home against fire. Never leave candles close to combustible materials — like upholstered furniture, drapes, or carpets and most importantly, keep pets and children away from a burning candle!
  • Stuck indoors? Don't go for the gas. Using a gas generator, outdoor camping heater, or charcoal barbecue inside your home or garage can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Be sure you carefully read the instructions for your generator or alternative heat source before turning it on.

A windy snowstorm or hailstorm could be a recipe for power outages in the winter. Plan ahead with an emergency kit, proper supplies, and a backup generator so you can stay safe and warm until the power comes back on.

What to do after the power comes back on

After the power comes back on, take advantage of your newly illuminated lights and make sure you're prepared in case the power cuts out again.

Now that you have power, consider these practical pointers:

  • Restock your supplies. Be sure to refill your winter storm emergency kit in case of another power outage.
  • When in doubt, throw it out. Refrigerated and frozen food is likely safe to eat if the power was out for less than four hours and the fridge or freezer door was left closed (or if it was hooked up to a generator). But if perishable foods like meat, seafood, milk, or leftovers have been exposed to temperatures higher than 5°C for longer than two hours, it's best to toss them. See how your home insurance policy could cover the cost of groceries that spoil in your fridge or freezer during a power outage.
  • Inspect and repair. Take some time to inspect your home for any damage that might have been caused while the power was out, like frozen pipes, damage to your roof, or flooding in your basement. But before you rush out to make those repairs, consider contacting your group's insurance broker as your repairs (and the additional living expenses you incur if you need to stay somewhere else in the meantime) could be covered by your home insurance policy.

To learn more about how your home insurance can protect you in the event of a power outage or nasty winter storm, talk to your group's licensed insurance broker today.

Want to know more about what to do before, during, and after a power outage? Find out what the Government of Canada recommends.

Want to help your friends and family prepare for a winter power outage? Share these tips on Facebook or Twitter.