How To Survive A Power Outage in Toronto

Toronto Life

Loss of power makes us realize how dependent we are on electricity and how inconvenient and annoying everyday tasks can be without it. However, a power outage that lasts several days or even weeks might be life-threatening for a huge number of Canadian families. Even though the probability of a several-days-long nationwide blackout is relatively low, it's always good to be prepared and to know what to do in the event of an emergency, as it's our responsibility to protect our families and our homes.

Toronto By Night Ernst Moeksis
Toronto By Night Ernst Moeksis

Tens of thousands of GTA residents had to spend Christmas without power and heat after the ice storm that struck North America in December 2013. Many Toronto families woke up shivering on Christmas Day and had to eat canned soup instead of Christmas dinner. Warming centres set up by the city as well as hotels or restaurants were packed with people desperate to keep warm. The power outage lasted almost a week, and Toronto residents were often unprepared without a backup power source. Even though there were warming centres open to people without heat in their homes, some residents didn't even know they existed, because they had very limited access to news, as their radios and TVs were without electricity. As Toronto resident Connie told us,

"The reality of the power outage situation looked rather bad initially. No phone – cell batteries died – no heat – record low temps. It doesn't take long for a house to get very cold. My best friend Lisa's in-laws live in Burlington and they were able to find a generator for them. Once it was hooked up, they were able to juggle charging phones, space heaters, microwave. Not perfect but the biggest concern was keeping enough heat inside to avoid pipes freezing! And I know they were touched by how many people offered to take them, their dog and mother in. Tough times can bring out the best in people!"

Even after the storm was over and power was restored, Toronto residents returned home to find out that all the food they stored for the holidays was spoiled. Many Torontonians had to struggle with a shortage of food after they were forced to throw out thousands of dollars worth of groceries. Michelle, a grocery manager, remained with a skeleton staff in the store after they lost both regular electricity supply and a back-up generator:

"Fortified by coffee and donuts (one staff member stood in line for 50 minutes to get it) we broke into an impromptu Euchre tournament to pass the time. When the sun set we sent the staff home and I remained for the night. Thankfully my husband came with a thermos of coffee, a hot chicken dinner and blankets to keep warm. The power came on Christmas Eve. It was too late to save a lot of the food in the store (frozen, dairy, meat and produce had to be thrown out in the garbage), and a great deal of the business had been permanently lost."

The Ontario government had made a serious effort to compensate as many residents as possible by distributing food gift cards. Various local companies supported the program with generous donations. Overall, more than 12,000 families and individuals received donations of more than $1 million. 

Moreover, there were multiple reported health emergencies of people getting poisoned by carbon monoxide. Many residents struggling for heat used fuel-burning heaters and generators without proper ventilation indoors, which allowed carbon monoxide to escape. Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless, and tasteless gas, so without a carbon monoxide detector, you won't be able to notice it in your home.   

A blackout can be caused by various factors, regardless of the season, including freezing rain, sleet storms, high winds, cold snaps, or heat waves. A nationwide power outage could be caused by natural disasters such as an earthquake, flooding, tsunamis, avalanches, or tornadoes. You might find yourself without heating, air conditioning, lighting, hot water, or — in the worse scenarios — even running water. Here are a few tips that could help you survive a long-term blackout.

Prepare Your Home Before a Blackout

Canada is a vast country, and different regions face different risks. It is important to be prepared for natural risks in your area as well as to be aware that it could trigger other hazards such as chemical spills, explosions, or fires. In Ontario, regional risks include flooding, severe storms, forest fires, earthquakes, extreme heat, tornadoes, and nuclear emergencies. Emergency Management Ontario is monitoring all the natural risks as well as other hazards and providing information on what to do in case of such emergencies. 

Don't rely on the fact, that your neighbourhood was spared from natural disasters for a whole decade or longer. As Margaret points out:

"What struck me about the ice storm is how one area of the city can be so devastated and another barely touched. In Scarborough where I live, trees bowed over with ice. Twigs had an additional inch of diameter added to them. You could hear the crashing of branches all around (it often sounded like an avalanche crash that you hear on TV). The night of the storm the ice lightning in the sky was a thing to behold — bursts of light and no sound. The next day I went to work mid-town and there was no sign of the storm — just a mere dusting of snow on the ground."

Preparing for a power outage in advance will substantially decrease the impact of a number of possible worst-case scenarios on your family. When preparing for a power outage, you should make plans so that you and your family can survive on your own for at least three days. Josée Picard, Public Safety Canada spokesperson, told us,

"The Government of Canada's priority is the safety and security of Canadians. The '72 Hours... Is Your Family Prepared?' campaign asks Canadians to take practical steps to prepare for emergencies — an initiative that goes to the hear of Public Safety's mandate. Specifically, Canadians are encouraged to: know the risks, make a plan and get a kit."

Fireplace By Loft I Love
Fireplace By Loft I Love

First of all, you can install a non-electric standby stove or heater, and if you have a wood-burning fireplace, make sure the chimney is well maintained and cleaned regularly. Having an emergency generator will help you a lot during a blackout, but before purchasing one, check that it meets the power requirements of your furnace, appliances, and lighting fixtures. Also, keep in mind that power generators produce potentially deadly carbon monoxide fumes, and never run them inside a home or garage. Be careful when plugging the generator. It should not be connected directly to a wall outlet, as it might produce a "back feed" into utility lines, which can injure people working to restore power. When connecting your back-up generator to your home's electrical system, use an approved transfer panel and switch that has been installed by a qualified electrician.

If you don't have an emergency generator, you can draw power from your car's battery using a power inverter. A power inverter is a good thing to have around, as it turns the DC current from your car into an AC current that you can use for appliances during a blackout. There are different types and sizes of power inverters, ranging from units that will allow you power a laptop to units you could use to heat your water.

Emergency Kit

One of the basic things you need to do when preparing for a blackout is to stock up on essential items. As Josée Picard noted,

"During an emergency, we will all need some basic supplies. We may need to get by without power or tap water. We should all be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours."

You should keep essential supplies in different locations so that you can reach them easily. Your emergency kit should be easy to carry and well organized so that you can find the item you need even when it's dark. Moreover, make sure that all your family members know where the emergency kits are.   

The supplies you should keep in your emergency kit include at least two litres of water per person per day (preferably packed in small bottles), food that won't go bad (such as canned food, energy bars, and dried foods), a manual can opener, a battery-powered flashlight, a battery-powered radio, a first aid kit, prescription medications, and keys to your car and house. These are the basic items that shouldn't be missing in your emergency kit — no matter what. An emergency kit like this helped also Lindy, who wrote us about her experience during the blackout:

"On Friday December 20, 2013 the electricity went out in many parts of the GTA. We had lost power in the evening around 8pm. As soon as this occurred we started up our fireplace, lit spare candles and grabbed our emergency flashlights. By the time we heated up our living room, we were tired and hungry. I had purchased a portable gas stove a few years back and fortunately for us it came in handy during this blackout. We were able to eat normally over the next few days since we always carry a supply of canned food, kraft dinner, and instant noodles in our cupboards. We spent the evening playing board games and roasting marsh mellows until we fell asleep by the fireplace."

In addition to these basic necessities, we recommend you also pack some candles with matches or a lighter, clothes and footwear for each household member, a sleeping bag or warm blanket for everyone, a whistle for situations where you need to attract attention, garbage bags for personal sanitation, toilet paper, personal care supplies, safety gloves, basic tools (including a hammer, wrench, pliers, screwdrivers, and fasteners), a fuel-powered stove with additional fuel, and some more water for cooking and cleaning.

Candles By Admean
Candles By Admean

Lindy's story continues:

"It was really cold that night, so my boyfriend and I layered our clothes and slept with multiple spare blankets and pillows. The first night had passed and by Saturday morning we realized that the power in our area may not return any time soon. As for this reason, we spent the afternoon driving around to the local supermarkets, restaurants, and gas station, trying to stock up on supplies to last us the week. Unfortunately for us, the supermarkets were closed and the restaurants and gas stations ran out of supply. We debated on returning home to my parents' house in Hamilton, but we could not reach them since the power lines were down. The next few days we modestly lived off of our remaining supply of food. By Monday morning the electricity had returned and almost everything resumed back to normal. We were thankful that the electricians were able to restore our power before Christmas Eve (unlike our friends who lived down the street, who had no power for a full week). This event was a nice reminder and a nice lesson (right before Christmas) that electricity is a privilege and that there are more important things in life than materialistic things we want."

Also, keep in mind that even if some shops stay open during a blackout, they won't accept credit cards. You won't be able to withdraw any cash either, so it might be handy to keep some money in your survival kit.

Emergency Plan

Making an emergency plan is an important part of preparing your home for a blackout. Your family may not be together when the power goes out, so make a plan for how you will contact one another. Josée Picard from Public Safety Canada commented,

"Every Canadian household needs an emergency plan. It will help you and your family know what to do if disaster strikes. We should all practice what to do in different emergency situations."

Make sure every member of your family knows what to do in an emergency and knows how to communicate with the rest of the family in different situations. Discuss various options. What should you and your family members do when a blackout catches you at home, at work, or at school? 

It might be a good idea to complete a contact card for each family member as well as to identify an appropriate out-of-town contact who can act as an intermediary in case of an emergency. Moreover, you should store important family documents (including birth certificates, passports, insurance policies, or financial documents) in waterproof containers. Here are an online tool and demonstration videos designed by the Government of Canada to help make an emergency plan.    

During a Blackout

First of all, when the power goes out, check whether the blackout is only in your home or in the whole neighbourhood. If the whole neighbourhood's power is out, you should notify your electric supply authority. Afterwards, turn off and unplug all unnecessary electrical equipment and appliances. The thermostat for the home heating system should be turned down to a minimum as well. Also, turn off all lights except one so that you know the power has been restored.

In case of a long-term blackout, you should keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. Open them only when necessary and first use perishable food from the fridge. As Jeff, a Toronto resident mentioned, those who experienced several black outs before, probably found out that closed fridge will keep foods cold for about four hours, and a full freezer will keep your food frozen for 24 to 36 hours if the door remains closed:

Fridge With Cold Food By Bre Pettis
Fridge With Cold Food By Bre Pettis

"I don't know if you can say that I am lucky, but every time there is a major storm in the area the power goes out in my building & area – often only for a couple of hours. That has taught me not to open the fridge & freezer, to always keep fresh batteries in a flashlight, and to keep candles and matches handy. I was only out for a day and so I wrapped gifts during daylight and read in the evening – a very soothing day all-in-all. The only thing that I missed was hot coffee – there were no open shops anywhere in my area of the city."

Be very careful when using alternate sources for electricity, heating, or cooking, as there's an increased danger of carbon monoxide poisoning, electric shock, or fire. Never use a generator, grill, camp stove, or other gasoline-, propane-, natural gas–, or charcoal-burning devices indoors or in a partially enclosed area. Remember, they give off carbon monoxide, which is very dangerous, as you can't smell it or see it. The best way to avoid this hazard is to install carbon monoxide alarms in central locations on each floor of your home. If the alarm is hard-wired to the house's electrical supply, make sure it also has a battery-powered back-up.

In some cases, particularly during winter, when the freezing temperatures make your home uninhabitable, you could be forced to evacuate. Even if you have to leave your house because of low temperatures, you should protect your home to minimize potential damage. The most commonest, which is also very expensive to repair, is damaged plumbing from frozen water. You can prevent your pipes from freezing by draining them. You can do this by turning off the valve of the main water supply to the house. Then, open all the taps in the house and flush the toilets several times, starting at the top of the house.

If you're staying in your home, it's enough to allow a small stream of water to run from faucets, as running water won't freeze. Don't forget to open the drain valve in the basement as well as unhook washing machine hoses.

When Power Is Restored           

There are several safety issues you should keep in mind even after a blackout ends. Be forewarned that a storm or other natural disaster could have knocked down your power lines. Downed power lines are very dangerous and should be reported immediately. They can carry an electric current strong enough to cause serious injury or even death, so keep your family and pets away from them. If your basement is flooded, do not enter it, unless you are sure that the power is disconnected. Plus, if any appliances were flooded, do not use them before having them checked by a qualified electrician.

You will also need some patience with your electrical system, tools, and appliances. Give them some time to stabilize and reconnect. Do not connect them all at once. The best way is to start with the heating system, wait for about 10 to 15 minutes, then reconnect the fridge and freezer. Again, wait for approximately 15 minutes before reconnecting other appliances. 

If you drained the water in your pipes, you will have to close all the valves you left open and turn on the water supply. You should close the lowest taps first, allowing air to escape from the upper taps. Check your food supplies and throw away everything that has spoiled. Finally, don't forget to restock your emergency kits. 

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