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Published: 1/16/2010

Prepare now for inevitable days when power goes out

BY BILL HUSTED
ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

ATLANTA — So you think that fancy HDTV of yours is a miracle?

Let me tell you a thing or two about miracles. Nothing matches the miracle of being able to flip a switch and have light, or to set the thermostat and have heat. The most powerful computer or sharpest HDTV doesn't hold a candle to that kind of miracle.

Unfortunately, you're likely to see that for yourself when the lights go out at your house. At this time of the year, ice storms can knock the power out.

Heck, so can a crazed squirrel that decides to make a nest in an electrical transformer.

You can't stop a power outage from happening, so the best defense is to prepare for it. Today we'll talk about the essentials, as well as a few extras for those who want to get a little fancy.

Let there be light

First, we need to see what we're doing. That's where fluorescent camping lanterns come in. Unlike a flashlight, they throw a wide swatch of light that will let you read, cook and live in a seminormal manner.

You'll find these battery-powered lanterns in the outdoor section in stores such as Target, Walmart or Kmart.

Get a lantern with at least two light tubes. And there should be a lantern for each family member.

Stay in touch

Having a battery-powered radio can let you listen to news that could literally save your life during tornadoes, hurricanes and ice storms. Just as is true with the lights, brands aren't important here.

Almost any radio will do. But it's especially nice to have one that also can receive emergency broadcasts from the National Weather Service. Here's an example (not a recommendation for or against this model) of a radio that can do that: tinyurl.com/yc4dgpb.

Small battery-powered TVs also provide news and even a bit of entertainment during a blackout. You need to make sure your TV can receive over-the-air digital signals. Radio Shack offers this model: tinyurl.com/ydulpwo. It offers all that for $170, and it was on sale for $129.99 when I checked.

Power to the people

You'll need batteries for the items on my shopping list. Avoid rechargeables; they slowly lose their charge, even when not in use.

Stock up with plain old alkaline batteries. They have a shelf life of three years or more. Pick up plenty now — you don't want to be looking for an open store during an extended power outage.

Communication skills

Landline telephones may continue to work when the power is out. But wireless walkabout phones require electricity. That's why it's important to have at least one wired phone. And even wired phones sometimes go out when a storm will take down phone lines, too.

Luckily most families have cell phones these days. Long-term outages mean you'll need to charge the cell phones. If you use — and you should — an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) for your computer you can also plug your charger into it. It has plenty of juice for multiple charges.

If you must use a computer during an outage, rely on power-friendly devices such as an iPhone or a laptop computer. A large UPS can power a wireless router and charge your laptop computer. But only power up for a few moments and turn off or disconnect the router and charger when not needed.

The hot seat

Forced-air heating systems stop working when the power goes out, even if they use natural gas. You need a way to power the system's blower if you want heat. A small gasoline-powered generator can do that.

But there are some important cautions. Have an electrician modify the circuit at the blower so power from the generator won't leave your house.

Otherwise you can kill a power company worker who believes he's handling a dead line. Also put the generator outside the house so that the exhaust gas doesn't kill your family.

There are a lot of gotchas here and any family considering this extra step should spend time learning to use a generator safely.

Now is the time to prepare for the next big outage. If you do, your house can be a haven of light during dark times.



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