By Laura Firszt, Networx
Electrical outages have become much more common in the US over the past two decades. Summer storms and winter freezes are both capable of knocking out local power for hours or even days. During an electricity failure, your first concern, after the safety of your family members, may be what to eat. How long will food stored in the refrigerator be safe? What can you salvage and what should be tossed? And how will you manage until things get back to normal?
Find Out Why
When your electricity cuts off unexpectedly, even in stormy Florida weather, don't jump to the conclusion that there is a general power failure. Start by checking your home's circuit breaker box. If that doesn't pinpoint the problem, contact the local power authority or listen to your battery-powered radio – you do have one, don't you? – for updates. Unplug as many appliances as you can, turn off lights and lower your thermostat. This protects against damage from power surges and makes it easier for the utility company to restore electricity.
Like a good Scout, you can take steps in advance to be prepared for a crisis. In addition to such basics as emergency lights, stock up on bottled water and non-perishable food, especially baby formula and pet chow. A manual can opener is a must if your rations include canned goods. Owners of gas ranges are in luck. Otherwise an indoor-safe emergency stove is advisable. (Even without any kind of stove, I know a determined caffeine addict who once boiled water for coffee over a candle flame!)
Some people recommend having a portable cooler on hand for food storage, but you can achieve similar results by placing dry ice or ice blocks in your refrigerator … presuming, of course, that you'll have access to a source of ice unaffected by the outage. Load your fridge and freezer as much as possible as a general rule, supplementing with water-filled plastic bottles filled if necessary – this will minimize air spaces and help keep food colder (aa well as adding to your appliances' everyday energy efficiency).
Keep Food Cold
Your refrigerator's internal temperature will stay cool longer if you can avoid opening it. On winter days, take out any items you wish to use shortly and store them in a cold place, such as a windowsill away from the sun. Meat and easily spoiled foods should be quickly placed in the freezer when possible, particularly if the power is not likely to be restored for some time. Food in your closed refrigerator will stay safe for human consumption at least four hours, potentially longer in a very cold kitchen.
A chest or upright freezer will keep its contents frozen for approximately 24 hours without electricity if it is half full, and for two to four days when completely filled. You can help keep cold air inside both your fridge and freezer by insulating them with blankets, making sure that the compressor is not covered.
Any item that looks or smells bad must be discarded, as should any perishable – meat, poultry, seafood, milk, soft cheeses, cooked dishes, leftovers and cut fruit or vegetables – that has been at room temperature (40 degrees Fahrenheit) for more than two hours. The Department of Health & Human Services offers a handy reference chart to help determine which foods are safe to eat unrefrigerated. Food from the freezer may be refrozen if at the time power was restored, it contained ice crystals or the freezer temperature was above 40 degrees. If you're not sure whether to use a particular food, remember that "When in doubt, throw it out!" is the #1 principle of food safety.