Emergency Heat for Winter Storms

The weather stations have been in frequent frenzy this winter, warning communities across the nation of the next big winter storm. It may seem counter-intuitive, but climate change may cause increasingly powerful ó and unpredictable ó winter storms (learn more in Global Warming and Extreme Weather). If itís frigid outside and the electrical grid goes down, you need backup heating right away. Central heating systems fueled with oil or gas need electricity to function, and when they quit, houses can become unlivable in a matter of hours.

All over the country, the transmission lines, transformers and switches that make up the electrical grid are old and overloaded. Experts say we can expect more frequent power failures because the aging infrastructure isnít being upgraded. This is scary news as snowstorms blow your direction. Is there a way to prepare and protect your family from power outages?

The best way to protect your family is to do some planning now. If you live in a cold climate, the first priority is either a backup†electrical generator and/or a heating system that can run without electricity. The generator option is usually sufficient for short emergencies of a day or two, but in extended and widespread outages, gasoline and diesel fuel become precious and rare commodities. In warmer climates, a generator is a necessity because refrigeration is the most pressing need. Because fuel is expensive and often hard to obtain in emergencies, a solar generator can meet your needs using the power of the sun. This†guide to solar generators provides a list of brands so you can compare your options.

A†woodstove is a good non-electric heating and cooking option, provided you keep enough firewood on hand to fuel it during an emergency. Learn more in When to Choose Wood Heat.

Most†natural gas or propane stoves and fireplaces can operate without electricity because they have either a continuous pilot flame or electronic ignition with battery backup. Before buying a gas appliance, make sure it has one of these features, because you do not want to be stuck in a power outage with a pilot light that is lit solely electronically.

A†propane heater will go through a lot of fuel when running continuously, so if propane is your backup fuel, consider keeping an emergency supply on hand ó during extended ice storms or blizzards, delivery trucks often canít get through blocked roads. Compare tankless water heaters that use propane to find out if this option is the best one for your situation.

Pellet stoves need electricity to run the fuel feed auger and fans, and outdoor boilers depend on it to operate†pumps that move the water to the house and back. As with conventional heating systems, a backup generator is needed to make either option functional.

Whatever your choice, make safety your highest priority. Fatalities during winter power failures are mostly due to breathing carbon monoxide gas released by temporary electrical, cooking and heating equipment. Natural gas and propane cooking ranges shouldnít be used as space heaters because of this. Kerosene heaters can be dangerous in confined spaces, so they are not a good emergency option. Charcoal grills or gas generators should never be used in an enclosed space such as a garage, or even a breezeway ó and especially not in the house.

When planning your strategy, consider four key needs: heating, cooking, refrigeration and water pumping. A trusty woodstove might be the best way to handle the first two, and a generator would be needed for the rest. These systems are not always cheap, and the technical aspects may be a challenge to wrap your mind around. However, it is well worth it to do your research because these storms arenít going anywhere ó and you want to make sure you donít have to, either. Get some additional tips in Storm Preparedness for Natural Disasters. And stay safe out there!

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LMj Sunshine

Thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you.

Terry V.
Terry V3 years ago


Tim C.
Tim C3 years ago


Angie B.
Angela B3 years ago

We never really appreciate how many things we use electricity for until the power goes out for a few days.

Kate S.
Kate S3 years ago

Good reminders; We had to "rough it " for 15 days about three years ago during a massive ice storm in the New England area. It was a wake up call for what could happen if we were not prepared. We only heat our log cabin with wood anyways, so that was not an issue, but what was an issue was water! Wells need electricity...so down to the creek we went after our emergency stash of water was used up. (YES we had a generator...which mice had chewed through the pull cord to nest in and we figured that out on the first yank! The electricity gods showed us didn't they! ) A few days into it- we thought it was romantic...day 15 we realized we had changed our attitudes about taking electricity for granted. Be prepared people... only you can take care of yourselves in a real emergency.

Mary L.
Mary L3 years ago

And for those of us who live in apartments? Close off all but the living room/kitchen and pile on blankets use table top bottle gas to cook with and try to find a friend you can stay with that has electricity.

Maggie Kearns
Maggie Kearns3 years ago


Kay M.
Kay M3 years ago