A Few Hours
Riding out a whole-house loss of power that lasts a few hours is manageable. Flashlights guide you through the dark and singing old songs from summer camp makes up for the lack of HDTV. The biggest concern is keeping heated air from escaping the house. To that end, keep exterior doors closed as much as possible. If there’s a door between living areas and exterior doors — such as the door to the garage or mudroom — keep that one shut too. Open curtains on the sunny side of the house and close the curtains on any window the sun isn’t warming (at night, that’s all of them). Close the flue in the fireplace, unless you build a fire in the fireplace.
Should you build a fire in the fireplace? Not unless you have a high-efficiency fireplace or the house is so cold that you need an emergency heat source and everyone plans to huddle around it until the power comes back on. As the fire consumes the oxygen in the house, the vacuum created pulls in cold replacement air from outdoors through small gaps around windows and the like. So although the fire might warm the room, the rest of the house gets colder.
More than a Day
A power outage that lasts for several days during freezing weather leaves two options: Stay somewhere else (leave the faucets dripping to prevent the pipes from freezing) or buy a generator.
When deciding whether to buy a generator, first ask yourself how likely you are to need it where you live — that can be a trick question, because power companies accustomed to winter storms are equipped to restore power more quickly than those where ice storms are rare.
Then ask whether you can put up with it. Generators are loud, heavy and burn gasoline. How much gasoline varies, but figure at least 10 gallons a day, which you have to transport to your house in gas cans. And you’ll have extension cords running from the generator to every appliance, unless an electrician wires the generator to your circuit panel.
If you decide to buy one, choose one that can power key appliances — an average home needs a generator rated for about 5000 watts, which costs about $800. Then get it before you need it, because they sell out fast when the power goes.