Heat waves and winter storms combined with power outages are a dangerous recipe that can have tragic results.

Power outages induced by extreme weather conditions mean suffocating in unrelenting heat or freezing temperatures without the power to run an air conditioner or heater.

O National Weather Service has issued a severe weather warning for a winter storm that is expected to hit the Tri-State area on February 12th and continue through February 13th. Tri-State area residents should be prepared for heavy snowfall and gusty winds.

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Outages caused by winter storms and summer heat waves can leave residents powerless, but they are fundamentally different problems with essentially opposite solutions. Winter outages typically result from a large or sudden drop in power to the grid. A natural gas power plant goes offline, turbines stop working, or a snow-laden tree falls onto a power line, interrupting service.

Blackouts during a heat wave, on the other hand, are usually triggered by an excess demand for electricity. They are typically caused by thousands of households turning on their air conditioners at the same time to escape the heat. That's why utility companies and other officials often urge customers to conserve energy when the mercury rises.

These calls for energy conservation help prevent blackouts, said Yami Newell, associate director of community projects at Elevate, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works on energy issues. But it can also lead to some difficult choices for people who have to figure out how to reduce their own energy consumption.

Newell emphasized that reducing energy consumption doesn't just mean sweating and suffering through it.

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“In the summer it can be dangerously hot and people haven’t survived that, so I don’t want people to save so much energy that their homes are unsafe,” Newell said.

Instead, experts recommend some safe energy-saving tips that can be used during a heat wave when the grid is overloaded or just to reduce your energy bill. For winter, the best advice involves being prepared, whether with a backup power source or supplies to get you through an outage.

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Tips on how to prepare when power goes out during hot or cold weather

Fortunately, there are many safe compromises that can reduce energy waste in the summer and also keep you safe in the winter.

Heat waves

  • Newell says it all starts with keeping the air cooler in your home, checking for leaks and creating potential energy efficiency upgrades. “In the winter it keeps the air warm and in the summer it keeps the air cold in your home.”

  • Closing the blinds when the sun is out, it keeps direct light out of your home and is an easy way to reduce heat that actually works.

  • Fans they don't reduce the temperature of a room, but they help humans regulate their body temperature and keep you cooler. Newell says a ceiling fan can make you feel 6 to 7 degrees cooler than the actual temperature of a room.

  • Operating large appliances, such as dishwashers and washing machines, at night when there is lower demand for energy it can also reduce the load on the grid. In some places, electricity rates are cheaper during off-peak hours, so you'll also save money.

  • Newell also advocates something called “front cooling“which is turning on your air conditioner during off-peak hours to make your home nice and cool in anticipation of a hot day. This works best in well-sealed, energy-efficient homes.

The sun sets behind tall buildings in downtown Los Angeles, California The sun sets behind tall buildings in downtown Los Angeles, California

Downtown Los Angeles, California on September 30, 2020. Heat waves increase demand on the power grid. Additional stress can cause blackouts or power outages.

Frederico J. Brown/Getty

Cold weather:

  • Invest in a backup power source such as a generator or battery system. There are a wide variety of backup power solutions on the market, from gas-powered home generators that cost tens of thousands of dollars, to inexpensive portable batteries that you can pre-charge from an outlet to provide several hours of power to essential devices when the energy runs out. More about these options in the next section.

  • Consider a heat source without electricity, such as a wood stove. There are also a limited number of gas or propane heaters that can be safely operated indoors. If you opt for such a heat source, be sure to follow all instructions for operating such a heater safely to avoid fire or carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Stock up on supplies. If you don't have a backup power source, or even if you do, it's a good idea to keep a sufficient supply of food, blankets, water, warm clothing (dress in layers), batteries, and light sources (be careful with candles). available.

  • Weatherize your home before the storm arrives. If your home is of a certain age, there's a good chance it's leaking heat somewhere. Sealing these leaks and adding insulation will keep you warmer a little longer when the heat goes out. These improvements also qualify for a federal tax credit.

How to protect yourself from power outages

One way to never worry about power outages is to set up your own energy generation and storage system. This can be done in the form of solar panels and battery storage, which has the added benefit of being able to sell the extra energy generated to your local utility in exchange for credits on your monthly bill.

Some electric vehicles offer bi-directional charging, where your EV's battery can act as a backup power source.

Other homeowners opt for the arguably simpler approach of installing a backup generator that can come on to run their home when the grid goes down. You can also buy backup batteries that can be charged via the grid or however you want to use in an emergency, rather than a generator which can be noisy and uses fossil fuels. This is typically the cheapest option, but it needs to be charged before the emergency and only lasts a few hours or days at most, depending on usage.

A man checking his Tesla Powerwall home battery backup system A man checking his Tesla Powerwall home battery backup system

You can store energy and protect yourself during a power outage with a home battery backup system.

Sun Sentinel/Getty

Mike Murphy, owner of PreparationSOSwhich sells generators and other emergency preparedness equipment, said relatively affordable portable generators (often available for less than $1,000) can keep medical equipment and other essential devices running or keep your food from spoiling.

“You can plug in the fridge, let it run for a bit, then unplug it and it will easily keep your food cold for at least three days.”

However, these small generators may not work as well to run an air conditioner for long during a summer heat outage, which is why it's important to know how to save energy as well.

If neither of these options are within your reach, Newell reiterates the wisdom of keeping a supply of non-perishable foods on hand in case the grid goes offline for an extended period of time and you find yourself without a backup power supply.

“Also flashlights, things that don’t need to be plugged in but still provide light for your home,” Newell said.

She adds that the implementation of smart grid technology across the country is also significantly reducing the time many utility customers are without power during power outages caused by extreme weather events such as storms.

Con Edison field operators in New York City check power lines at the corner of First Ave. and E. 15th St. as they try to prevent a blackout due to increased consumption during the heat wave. Con Edison field operators in New York City check power lines at the corner of First Ave. and E. 15th St. as they try to prevent a blackout due to increased consumption during the heat wave.

According to the New York Daily News, increased power consumption during a heat wave in New York last August caused power cords to need repairs. These Con Edison field operators are trying to prevent a blackout while they work to fix it.

New York Daily News Archive/Getty

How reducing energy use can help the grid

The stability of an electrical grid, and indeed any electrical system, depends on the ability to maintain a constant supply of energy to meet the demand of the devices that extract or consume energy.

This is why things can go wrong in your home if you plug too many things into a single circuit that isn't designed to handle so much demand. The circuit breakers in your home are set to shut off the flow of power in the circuit when this happens to prevent damage to your devices or electrical system.

Something similar can happen to the larger power grid when heat waves hit and thousands of power-hungry air conditioners turn on at the same time. If demand begins to approach a state of excess supply of electricity available on the grid, the utility must initiate rolling blackouts to prevent damage to the system. If preventative measures are not implemented in time and the system becomes overloaded and causes an unplanned blackout, the lights may remain off for even longer until the damaged components can be repaired or replaced.

Turning on multiple electric heaters in a large room on a cold winter day can trip a circuit breaker in your home, in the same way that power demand induced by a heat wave can trigger a broader blackout.

Employing passive cooling techniques, such as simply closing light-colored curtains during sunny hours, can reduce temperatures in your home as well as reduce energy use. Even adopting simple measures that reduce the ambient temperature by just a few degrees translates into less energy use.

All of these tips and actions may seem like small steps that have no effect on your energy grid, but if enough people take steps toward energy conservation during extreme weather events, it could help make a bigger impact.