Friday, November 4, 2022

Planning for winter power cuts – absolutely not candles

‘The National Grid is planning for power cuts of 3-4 hours on winter days when there is a shortage of gas’ (BBC   National Grid Scenarios) . I grew up on a farm with frequent power cuts and now live somewhere with a ropey power supply (8 cuts in a week was our record). The National Grid are keen to stress that domestic power cuts are very much last resort stuff, but many friends have asked what they can do to prepare. I am struck that many have never experienced prolonged or repeated power cuts.  Here’s some basic tips, trying to keep the cost down - you are responsible of course for deciding how you might act safely on the following:




Buy electric battery powered camping lanterns that can light a room. Amazon has many – I have tested a few. As you are not camping with them you don’t need the most robust nor in fact the highest quality of LED light.  Lighting a room with a lantern works better than handheld torches, especially with a family. This one is good at about £8 even comes with batteries, light is a bit hard edged but lots of it. At £15 this was good - thumps out lots of light. This more expensive solar charging lantern (£28) is good with a nice soft light and it collapses for easy storage (but it has a lithium battery in it which is not v environmentally friendly). Think about how you will use the lantern - if your kids will only sleep with a night light, then you need a soft light lantern (this one is cute £19)  - not something too bright.  If money is no object, track down a Sofirn LT1 lantern (£80 plus).  An alternative is a head torch the basic Petzls are good - these seem better if there are just one or two of you. Small LED reading lights are v useful. Don't forget to have plenty of batteries – rechargeable are best for the environment and cheaper in the long run Eneloop and EBL are the go-to brands (not Duracell – they are rubbish). Removable rechargeable batteries are much more flexible than having a rechargeable appliance - you can just swap dead batteries out for freshly charged ones rather than waiting for the whole appliance to recharge.


Don’t buy candles or oil lamps (you will have a friend who bangs on about them). I grew up with flammable light sources and they don’t give out much light, are a pain to use and a fire hazard.




When the electricity goes off, your gas boiler will stop working. So invest in basic fleece blankets or down-like coats and some leggings. You will be stationary indoors so hiking goretex etc is of less use as you won’t be generating much body heat nor in the wind. Sleeping bags are great on the sofa. If you want to have a fire and have never done so before do get your chimney checked out in advance as older chimneys in older houses can have gas leaks which could kill people on upper floors. Only burn seasoned wood, check your local byelaws fires are illegal in many cities.. 




In some apartment buildings you might lose water pressure as the electric pump in the ground floor will be off. Have some bottled water around. Mains water should be ok in regular houses though many these days have shower pumps etc. Very modern buildings can have a lot of water pumping equipment which needs power.  If you have a gas combi boiler with no storage tank you won’t have hot water while the power is off. If you have pumped sewerage (say a pumped toilet in a basement or a basement tank that pumps up to the sewer or a home sewage plant) that might have problems. 




[I have edited this following feedback on Twitter] When the electricity goes off some modern gas cookers will stop working (they need power for the safety circuits to allow the gas through). However, some gas cookers will work if lit manually using a match or lighter. If you feel competent to do it safely you could test yours by unplugging the cooker from the electricity or (if the plug is inaccessible round the back of cooker) turning off the kitchen circuit at the fusebox. Then see if gas will flow to the hob without electric power and light it using a match. If that works keep some matches or a manual lighter in the kitchen. If blackouts are planned pre-cook and keep food warm in a food thermos (loads on Amazon £20-30).

There are of course plenty of no-heating-required meal options. But if you need to cook hot food (say for kids) then get a basic camper van gas stove and a couple of refills. This sort of cooker is stable and works well with domestic sized pans. The tiny camping stove made of titanium your nerdy mountaineering friend lusts over is less stable with a large domestic pan.  Any indoor gas cooker will need ventilation for safety so open a window while using (though if it is freezing you will lose heat).


Look for food that only needs a little heat to cook – cous cous, soy-mix type things are your best friend as your only need boiling water to start and residual heat to cook it. You don’t have to boil it for ten minutes. Look for any ‘just add water’ camping food – buying it pre-prepared is a little pricey but it can easily be imitated with bulk ingredients. Insulate the pan with a lid while boiling water and heating (makes a huge difference) and insulate the pan with a towel when it is safely off the heat for cous cous etc. 

Of course if you are planning food for kids If they didn’t like cous cous before, they’re not going to start now. Handy staples which don’t need heating include: 

  • Tinned tuna, salmon etc

  • Sweetcorn 

  • Mayonnaise (before opening - will need refrigerating afterwards)

  • Favourite spread (nutella, peanut butter etc)


You could try a BBQ but outdoors – the fumes are deadly indoors. Worth checking if a covid-era gazebo in the shed can be dragged out and used safely over the BBQ if it’s raining. If you plan to BBQ clean it now and buy fuel now (there is a shortage of the cylinders propane gas comes in - it’s hard to buy a new cylinder).


Your freezer should be ok for 4 hours, just don’t open it. A fridge might have more trouble. If it is cold weather get a plastic storage box with a clip on lid (to keep rats, foxes out) and store some perishables like milk you might need in that outdoors out of the sun.



It isn’t clear how well the mobile networks will work under a general power cut. They are not obliged to have battery backup. Plan for them to fail, but they might work – OFCOM advice here. I have written a separate blog post on internet options during a large power cut. My unsubstantiated hunch is that phones on the ee network in the UK might work best as they have to provide a service to the emergency services and their masts might have more back up power. Land lines (if you still have one) are backed up for a few hours with batteries at the exchange. If you do have one check it still works was you might not have spotted a fault as you don't use it. Make sure you tell friends and family your land line number for these occasions. Of course a wireless-walk around land line phone won’t work as the base station needs power. So go full retro with a plug in handset.  If you rely on IP or WiFi Calling for your mobile at home because the reception is bad this won’t work either (below).


A phone battery bank is good for your mobile-tablet just in case the 3G 4G etc keeps working. The Anker brand is very good for this sort of thing.  As you will be at home a chunky one which stores more power is a better option than a small one you drop in your bag to top up on the move.


Home internet via a fibre or phone line will likely die because your router needs power in the house. I don’t think phone line-based internet is obliged to have back ups power during power cuts even if you have a UPS to plug the router into.  But you never know.  Your TV etc will also stop working of course.


The BBC is planning to use FM radio during power cuts – look out a simple set from the attic or buy a cheap one that runs on batteries.


Make sure your laptop is charged in advance or use a suitable power bank. Your kids might need laptops for homework etc. Crucially, download any favourite tv shows or games onto tablets. During our power cuts the kids coped with everything except the absence of TV.

Your handheld gaming console might not work if it can’t get online to verify things or play, though they vary. 

Obviously you won't be able to charge an electric car. Take care that if the power goes off when it is plugged in you are able still to remove the power lead from the car's charging port. Otherwise you could be marooned with a car attached to a dead post. One or two car models have a camping or external power mode where they can supply 12v power for picnic or caravan electric gadgets - check your manual




Your burglar alarm may go haywire when the power drops. Or later if its battery runs out. Having the sirens going off on batteries just adds to the stress. Make sure you have the instructions for how to deal with it and the pin code if needed. And the number of any monitoring firm.  If you have bought gas or petrol fuel (see below) make sure this is stored and handled safely. If you have a fancy Ring doorbell or intercom it won’t work so think about door security. Communal remote unlocked doors (in a block say) will depend on how they are set up - sometimes they have a battery back up for safety.

If you have medical devices and refrigeration for meds needs then let your power distributer know (not your supplier who you pay bills to, it’s a different company use this link to find out which company and write it down) and they can put you on a Priority Services list and offer some help and advice. Do this well in advance.


Power options


Some will go for a temporary generator – small petrol driven ones range from a few £hundred. This must be outside – so you will need an extension lead to get to your fridge or whatever you need to keep powered. Buy also a dry box for safety when plugging extension leads in outdoors. Make sure you have enough fuel and the fuel is stored safely and get a funnel for pouring without spills. Go for a brand you have heard of Honda, Hyundai, Generac, Pramac, Briggs and Stratton etc be slightly wary of ultra cheap generic ones as safety is important.  Your neighbour might get annoyed by the noise. 


Home ‘standby’ generators are common in some parts of the world come in all shapes and sizes, even running off mains gas. But are beyond my scope here – they need professional design and install and are expensive.


There is always a solar panel or two to charge things, but power cuts are forecast in the darkest parts of the year so at our latitudes I’d be surprised if it could add anything during a power cut (as opposed to charging things slowly after a cut).


Some battery banks (often called power banks or portable power stations) come with 3-pin UK plugs. These are pricey and you need to think carefully about what you are plugging in as to how fast it will run down and its ability to output power safely – eg they won’t provide enough current to run a fan heater.  Find an electrically minded friend to help you with the maths of power storage, discharge rates v usage. 


For your IT use a laptop. All laptops are resilient to power changes. For desktops an un-interruptible Power Supply can give you a little leeway and time to shut your machine down safely if there are power fluctuations or unexpected outages. 

When the power comes back


The national grid talks about 3 hour cuts and an ‘hour to reconnect’. On reconnection the voltage might vary a bit for a while - this can sometimes cause sensitive or high power things to trip.

Reconnection can be a bit imprecise especially in rural areas but also in areas where switching everything off has caused something in the network to fail. After storm Eunice it took five days to get my rural location reconnected, we think because SSE forgot about us or we were a long way down a triage system.  If the street next door has come on and you haven’t within 30 minutes this is when it is important to have the distribution company (not the one you pay your bills to - the people who maintain the physical lines) phone number so you can tell them (use this link to find out which company and write it down). Different companies have ways of tracking power outage, but they are very flakey even when the internet is working. 


If your landline number is held by the electricity company then it can often use CLI to identify you without you having to talk to someone and then you have logged the issue. Report repeatedly as the company will be overwhelmed and their systems don’t work well under pressure (as independent investigations have found) The online reporting systems probably won’t be working as you can’t get online. The distribution company then sends a person out to fix it.


Longer power cuts


More of the above really – but if you, children or elderly relatives are getting dangerously cold then seek out local public heat facilities. Pay attention as we head into the power cut zone and plan ahead so you know where these are (as you won’t be able to use the internet with the power off). Check in with vulnerable neighbours. Your fridge contents will spoil after a while. Modern freezers will often have a series of beeps or flashing lights to tell you when the power comes back how much the temperature rose inside (check the manual) and you then make a judgement.

Do let me know if you have something useful to add in the comments (which I pre-moderate).Do bear in mind that people have very different needs depending on location, number of people living together etc. Please don’t bother telling me that candles were good enough for you in the 1970s. Also for those who have commendably installed their own power systems using solar good for you, but this isn’t the place to gloat. If you have non- Amazon links to the products above do let me know and I shall substitute when I have a minute.



  1. Add blue blocks[*] to the freezer. These can also be used, in a box with milk, etc., to keep it cool - but don't take them out of the freezer during (or immediately before) a power cut.

    [*] This kind of thing (specific product not tested):

  2. Also worth pointing out that VoIP phonelines won't work if the router goes off. At B4RN we recommend our vulnerable customers or businesses to buy a decent UPS. If you can keep the router going the service will continue on mobile devices that don't need power as the cabinets can go on generators so the service stays up if you can keep your router up. An extra UPS will also keep dect phones running or just keep an old fashioned phone to plug into the router. There is talk of making UPS compulsary after the predicted copper switch off.


Would love to hear your comments, but i shall moderate out for profanity, abuse, extremism or being off topic