Power Outages: Out of Darkness and Into Light

Wildfires, extreme heat, hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, and flooding all have one thing in common: wherever or whenever extreme weather hits, power outages follow.

Natural disasters affected roughly 1 in 10 American homes in 2021.1 That same year, there were 20 climate disaster events in the U.S. that each exceeded $1 billion in losses and hundreds of deaths.

The loss of electricity itself can add an additional layer of property damage or risk of liability to what already may be present as a result of the disaster, making things worse. An outage can also happen apart from lightning, wind, heavy rains, or weight of ice and snow: 

  • Blackouts, a large-scale interruption of power, can be caused by power company equipment failure. A rolling blackout, common during extreme heatwaves or wildfires, is a technique used by a utility to ease strain on a system. 

  • Brownouts are caused by fluctuating demand for energy and create a significant decrease in electricity. The decrease can keep your electronics from functioning normally and may even cause them to fail.

If it’s electrical, it can fail

Any outage, regardless of the cause, can damage or destroy electrical equipment. Here’s what can fail:

  • Fire alarm systems

  • Circuit breakers

  • HVAC systems

  • Sump pumps 

  • Well pumps

  • Audio/visual/lights (AVL) equipment

  • Networking switches and internet routers

  • Security systems and exterior lights

  • Computers and printers

Power coming back on can cause a damaging surge, too. Be sure to unplug or turn off large electronics and appliances—like HVAC and refrigeration units—to prevent additional damage. Sometimes the easiest way to do this is by turning off individual breakers at the electrical panel. Once power is restored, systematically turn units back on. 

Make sure you can access electrical panels by maintaining a clear path to each one. This enables ministry personnel to quickly access them during any kind of emergency. And to reduce the risk of fire, always maintain at least three feet of space around heating equipment, like boilers and furnaces, and electrical panels. This is required in many locations.

Property and liability losses: Talk to your agent

Know what you are and aren’t covered for when the power goes out. For property, ask your agent about coverage for typical losses caused by power outages. Additionally, an outage may expose your organization to liability issues, like if you serve spoiled food or someone gets injured in the darkness.

Some organizations are blessed to offer their facilities as comfort stations during widespread power outages, especially during heat waves. Before your ministry decides to offer daytime relief or overnight housing, there are practical matters to consider to limit your liability. Learn how to objectively evaluate your capabilities by reading Transitional Housing: Help for the Hurting.

You are not powerless

In some ways, preparing to lose power is like preparing for every disaster, all at once. That’s because any disaster can cause power loss, disrupt operations, and complicate recovery. Direct or indirect lightning strikes can cause a power surge that damages everything in its path, including outlets and whatever is plugged in to them.

But you are not powerless—there are things you can do before the lights go out. Consider having the following items on hand to help you power through the darkness. Keep an inventory on stored items and equipment and check to ensure items work.

Build lighting redundancy. If power is out for a while, or you have multiple buildings, a variety of options can help everyone move about the facility safely.

  • Emergency lighting

  • Multiple flashlights / fresh batteries

  • LED Lanterns

  • “Shake” or rechargeable flashlights

Make sure to regularly test the batteries in all emergency lighting and exit signs. It can be helpful to schedule a monthly check up to make sure you don’t get caught in the dark and to make sure people can safely exit during an emergency.

Alternatives to electricity. Different forms of electricity give you additional ways to power refrigeration units, fans, lights, cell phones, sump pumps, and more. 

  • Battery backups for security systems, water pumps, emergency lighting

  • Generators and gas powered water pumps—review Safe Generator Use from the American Red Cross

  • Portable power chargers

  • Solar-powered phone chargers

Protect your electronics

Protecting electrical panels and network equipment from a power surge is, in effect, protecting your ability to communicate and operate. 

Generally, protection comes in two forms: a surge protector that’s mounted to a main electrical panel and an uninterrupted power supply (UPS). A surge protector works like an interrupter. It diverts sudden power surges to a grounding wire before the surge can reach and damage critical equipment. However, a sudden shutdown can still damage sensitive computer equipment.

A better option is to install UPS units on all network switches, along with a main panel surge protector. UPS units protect network equipment—they signal your computer systems to power down orderly and safely after an outage. When accompanied with a generator, the UPS unit can keep your systems running until the generator kicks in, often several minutes later, or until you can manually power down affected equipment. A UPS unit also continually protects your systems from those smaller, damaging fluctuations in power.

Call in an expert

Hire a licensed electrician to audit your major electrical systems. Ideally, a surge protector or UPS should be installed on all electrical panels and network switches and tailored to your systems’ needs. Also, don’t assume just because you’ve recently remodeled or installed new AVL equipment that you’re protected. 

Additional resources

Breaker Panel Recalls

Circuit breakers, housed in the breaker panels, are first to receive the main power feed as it passes into a building. Other utilities, like an internet provider, pass their service through a modem or router that can then be connected via a network switch to other electronics like audio-visual-lighting (AVL) equipment.

Circuit breakers, when working correctly, are designed to prevent fires. They “trip” or cut off the flow of electricity when charged with excessive electrical demand or are short-circuited. When breakers do not work properly, they can overheat and sometimes cause a fire.

To see if you have a problematic breaker panel, use the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website to search your panel’s brand name. Recalled or discontinued panels are flagged due to overheating, fire hazards, thermal burn risk, and more. You can also call the CPSC Hotline at 800-638-2772.

Updated January 2023

The information provided in this article is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. We strongly encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program.