Wellness Design Strategies For Coping With Winter Power Outages At Home

Millions of Americans are living without power in their homes during frigid temperatures this week. Road conditions are icy in many areas, making drives to hotels, family or friends in less impacted regions potentially hazardous.  If you’re living without electric light, power or heat for extended periods, what can you do to keep yourself and your household safe, warm and sane?

Safety and security comprise the second of five facets of wellness design, and being secure in your living space is essential to your well-being. This has been true for as long as humans have been building shelters, but it’s become especially critical with a deadly virus circulating in our country.

Home, whether it’s a place you own or rent, needs to be safe and that’s much more difficult to achieve when you can’t keep yourself or your loved ones protected from the elements. Here are some expert tips that can help at this challenging time.

Avoid Danger

First, do no harm! Many households own generators, gas stoves and gas or charcoal grills that are tempting to use when your teeth are clattering. The American Red Cross advises against this. “Don’t use a gas stove to heat your home and do not use outdoor stoves indoors for heating or cooking,” the disaster resources nonprofit cautions. “Carbon monoxide poisoning is a real risk if improperly used. “Keep generators, camp stoves and charcoal grills outdoors only in well-ventilated areas at least 20 feet away from windows.”

Carbon monoxide poisoning is the most common cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the U.S., according to the Harvard Medical School, sickening about 15,000 people and killing 500 annually.  “In high concentrations, the gas can kill in minutes. Lower levels are also dangerous because the typical symptoms — headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath — could indicate so many illnesses. People think they have some kind of low-grade infection or the flu, not a serious poisoning problem,” the school’s newsletter shares; fears of Covid can create confusion now too. The editors add: “Even if it’s not fatal, CO poisoning can have devastating effects, including brain damage.”

Social media posts show people sitting in their cars to get warm and charge their devices. This isn’t a problem unless the car is parked in an enclosed garage, which can be fatal, Harvard reports. “Never run internal combustion engines indoors or in enclosed areas.”

Another home feature that could be impacted by a power outage is an installed water purification system. This could be a handy time to have a faucet-based or carafe filter for drinking and cooking water.   

“Be cautious with candles,” advises Angie Hicks, co-founder of home repair platform Angie’s List. “Avoid placing them too close to curtains, couches or other flammable surfaces in your home. Never leave candles burning in an unsupervised room and never leave them burning overnight while you’re sleeping. Additionally, avoid placing them on the floor where they could be easily stepped on or knocked over.”

Hicks also warns about the dangers of frozen pipes, suggesting, “For pipes in cabinets, open the doors to encourage air circulation to keep them warmer. If you don’t already know where it is, try to find your main water valve so you can shut it off if a pipe bursts during the storm. Additionally, try to keep taps on just enough to drip, which should help keep the pipes warm for longer. If certain pipes are not well insulated and you’re particularly worried about them freezing, you can wrap them in blankets, clothing or towels soaked in hot water.”

Increase Warmth

Hypothermia, (abnormally low body temperature) is caused by prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures. According to the Centers for Disease Control, sheltered victims of hypothermia are often older adults with inadequate heating and babies sleeping in cold bedrooms. Symptoms include bright red, cold skin and very low energy for infants. For adults, it’s shivering, fumbling hands, memory loss, confusion, fumbling hands, slurred speech and drowsiness.

The National Weather Service offers these suggestions for safely keeping your home warmer during a power outage. “Close blinds or curtains to keep in some heat,” its tip sheet recommends. If you own blackout window coverings, this is a great time to keep them shut. They’re always great for supporting sleep and energy savings. Their insulation makes them especially helpful in emergencies like this.

You should also consider closing off some rooms to avoid wasting heat, the NWS suggests, which could mean having the kids bunk in together temporarily and having everyone gather together after school and work hours for shared family time. Another helpful suggestion from the agency is to “stuff towels in cracks under doors.” This is also a good time to use whatever throws and extra blankets you have for layering.

If, however, despite your best efforts, someone in your household becomes hypothermic (possibly when they come in from shoveling the walkway or walking the dog), these CDC suggestions can help during an outage:

  • Warm the center of the person’s body—chest, neck, head, and groin. You can use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
  • Warm drinks can help increase body temperature, but do not give alcoholic drinks. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person. (This can work if you can heat a beverage on a still-operational gas stove.)
  • After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrap their body, including their head and neck, in a warm blanket.
  • Get the person proper medical attention as soon as possible.

Stay Calm and Centered

Stress during unpredictable, challenging times is common. “Children, senior citizens, people with access or functional needs, and people for whom English is not their first language are especially at risk,” notes Ready.gov, a partner site to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Services and other government agencies. With so many Americans impacted by Covid, these stresses can be heightened at this time.

What can you do for yourself and your loved ones, while remaining safe at home. Missouri’s Department of Health & Senior Services suggests participating in family activities you enjoy together. During a power outage, card games and board games by candlelight can work.

DHSS also suggests returning to your routines as much as possible. If Covid had you exercising indoors already, this can be tremendously helpful to both your physical and mental health, and cardio workouts can help you generate body heat. The department suggest recognizing your own feelings, which can be enhanced by quiet meditation. A blackout’s silver lining might be reduced television exposure, which gives you the space to reflect and destress. That may very well be a bigger boon to you than your kids.

Meet Family Needs

“Finding creative solutions when things become stressful is one of the best things that can be done for children for their mental health,” notes Shana Feibel, attending psychiatrist at the Lindner Center of Hope and assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. “Childhood imaginations are vibrant and strong, so when you try to make a game out of things, their innate sense of fun and wonder will come alive.”

One idea Feibel offers is to challenge them to make a blanket fort for themselves. “When the temperatures go down, this can be a great way to take their minds off the issue and make them warm as well.”  She also suggests cuddling together, telling stories under blankets. “In a multigenerational household, everyone can do their part to work on the problem in their own ways. They will all have different solutions to the same set of problems, and can ultimately learn from each other.”

Care For Pets

Your household might include some non-human members, and there are different considerations for each species. The Humane Society has these tips for dogs and cats, reptiles, birds and emergency situations.