Don’t be left in the dark

A Nova Scotia Power crew in Port Hawkesbury in 2019. Photo: Twitter

Expert advice to help you stay safe when Nova Scotia Power service fails

Pretty much every time the weather gets turbulent, and sometimes just because it’s foggy or for no apparent reason at all, Nova Scotians have to endure power outages. In the summer they’re mostly an inconvenience. This time of year, those service failures can be a real hazard.

Plan to be waterless
Wednesday’s unexplained power outage caught me off guard, but I was still partially prepared.

If you have municipal service, at least you still have running water when the power fails. But thousands of Nova Scotians (including me), many of whom are in HRM, don’t have municipal water service, instead relying on a well. So when the power goes off, so does the water pump.

My plan for this is to keep enough water stored in jugs to last three days. I live alone, so that means about 100 litres of water, which I store in a variety of containers. I prefer the 10-litre containers, since water is heavy and small jugs are easier to store and carry for their annual refresh. I could drink this water in a pinch, but these ones are earmarked for washing and flushing.

I also have another 20 litres of water in my kitchen for drinking. I refresh these containers regularly, so they don’t become stale.

Also regarding water, on a day before I know that a storm is coming, I fill my empty top loading washing machine. This will give me another approximately 30 litres of water if needed. (And when the power comes back, I do a load of laundry, and not a drop is wasted.)

Don’t freeze
When a blackout looms, I crank up the thermostats. My house is very well insulated, so it takes several hours for it to drop from 20 C to chilly. If you have a wood stove that doesn’t use a blower, you can fire that up and stay relatively comfortable.

But the first step during a service failure is to call Nova Scotia Power and report it. Supposedly, smart meters will eventually eliminate the need to do this, but for now, don’t assume the repair crews know your power is out. I found that out many years ago, when my whole neighbourhood was powerless, and no one reported it.

The outage line will usually also give you an estimated time of restoration. Those numbers aren’t particularly reliable, but they’re something to work with.

Next bundle up. If prolonged outages are common for you, lay by some hand warmers. You can find that at any outdoor-supply store — Hot Shot is among the most popular brands. Put a couple under your sweater and you’ll be toasty for several hours.

If it’s shaping up to be a long outage, my plan B for emergency heating is my propane fireplace. It’s a pain to start, since I haven’t used it in months, so it would first need a good inspection. It takes about an hour to inspect the pipeline, unwrap the chimney, and start the pilot light. These steps are annoying, but skipping them could be disastrous.

I also have a plan C for emergency heating. I bought a small propane catalytic heater about 20 years ago. It’s designed for indoor use, running on the same propane bottles that I use for my blow torch or camp stove. I keep it in its original box in my basement with a couple of bottle of propane.

I haven’t had to use it yet, but I have that planned. I have a tile floor in my kitchen, so that’s the best spot. I would also place it atop two steel baking sheets, keeping the heating side well away from any wall or object. I also have a fire extinguisher near my propane fireplace.

An important safety tip: never leave a running heater or fireplace unattended. Also remember that anything that burns uses oxygen and gives off some amount of exhaust, so open the outside door occasionally to let in some fresh air.

Be extremely careful when using candles or oil lamps. I don’t recommend them — they’re too risky. And remember, most camping stoves and heaters aren’t designed for indoor use. Read the manufacturers’ instructions and follow them carefully.

Having a method of heating water will make the blackout much more tolerable. You can cook with it, wash up, or make a hot beverage. Hot water is important for keeping your spirits up, so wander into the camping section of your local store and ask an employee some questions about how to camp at home. They should point you in the right direction.

My safety tip for choosing a water heating (camping) appliance is that propane is safer than liquid fuels. Spilled liquid fuel will burn your house down; propane will not spill. You just need to open a door and it will clear out.

Never use any barbecue indoors. They are designed for outdoor use only. They work in winter too, so that may be your best water heating option. Just clear the snow off, light it up, and you’ll be all set for a power failure.

You can survive without hot food or hot water. If you know a storm is coming, you can cook some things from your freezer and boil most of your eggs ahead of time. That way you’ll have things that are ready to eat and there will be less food to spoil in your fridge.

Final thoughts
Before a storm, I run through a little checklist.

  • Batteries for my flashlights and radio.
  • Precooked food.
  • Gasoline for my car, in case the gas stations are powerless for a few days.
  • Check the supply of hand warmers.
  • Charge the phone and back-up power packs.

Hopefully you won’t endure many power failures this winter, but if you do, be prepared to stay warm and stay safe.

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