Electricity is something we take for granted. When you depend on electricity to power medical equipment and medicine at home, then it comes as a shock when storms (tornados, hurricanes, ice storms, etc.) or extreme weather overloads power grids leading to a power outage. For these times, its essential to think ahead and not wait until you are facing a crisis.
Path to improved well being
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), any U.S. resident could experience a power outage. However, customers in Alabama, Iowa, Connecticut, Oklahoma, and Louisiana experienced the most time with interrupted power in 2020. Severe weather was a factor in all these states.
If you or another person in your home relies on medical equipment, plan ahead for a power outage.
- Make a list of everyone in your household who relies on electricity for medical needs. This could include breathing machines (CPAP, respirators, ventilators), power wheelchairs and scooters, oxygen, suction, or home dialysis equipment, and even a refrigerator to store medicine, such as insulin. Post this list in an area in your home that everyone (including babysitters or overnight guests) can read.
- Plan for how you will power/manage each item in the event of a power outage. You plan may include backup batteries, a generator, and even asking local authorities (such as a hospital, fire station, and energy provider) for assistance. It’s best to reach out to these sources in advance of a power outage to ask how and if they can help. Also, determine which items could become an emergency depending upon the amount of time the power is out. For example, if you must refrigerate medicine, you can go longer without power if you don’t constantly open and close the refrigerator door.
- Identify emergency lighting, safe heating alternatives, and backup power sources for your mobile devices, appliances, and medical equipment.
- Create an emergency power plan that includes model and serial numbers for your medical devices.
- Have all equipment instruction manuals located in one easy place to find in the event of a power outage. Read the user manual or contact the manufacturer to find out if your medical device is compatible with batteries or a generator.
- Fully charge your cellphone, battery-powered medical devices, and backup power sources if you know a disaster, such as a hurricane, is coming.
- If possible, buy manual alternatives for your electric devices that are portable, dependable, and durable. For example, a manual wheelchair, walker, or cane as a backup for an electric scooter.
Things to consider
Power outages can impact everyone differently, based on where you live and your community’s age and utility infrastructure. For example, people who live in rural areas and places with an aging infrastructure may experience more frequent and longer-lasting power outages. They may also have limited access to the supplies they need to prepare for power outages. Power outages can also put people at increased risk for post-disaster hazards, such as food and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Backup power sources
There are two types of backup power solutions and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Things to remember for each, include:
- If you use hearing aids, keep a supply of hearing aid batteries on hand.
- Create a plan for how to recharge batteries when the electricity is out.
- Check with your vendor/supplier to find alternative ways to charge batteries. Examples include connecting jumper cables to a vehicle battery or using a converter that plugs into a vehicle’s cigarette lighter or accessory outlet. If you substitute a vehicle battery for a wheelchair battery, the charge will not last as long as a charge for a wheelchair’s deep-cycle battery. If you use a motorized wheelchair or scooter, try to store a lightweight manual wheelchair for emergency use.
- Stored extra batteries require periodic charging even when they are unused. If your survival strategy depends on storing batteries, closely follow a recharging schedule.
- Know the working time of any batteries that support your systems.
- When you have a choice, choose equipment that uses batteries that are easily purchased from nearby stores.
- Make sure use of a generator is appropriate and realistic. A 2,000 to 2,500-watt gas-powered portable generator can power a refrigerator and several lamps. (A refrigerator needs to run only 15 minutes an hour to stay cool if you keep the door closed. So, you could unplug it to operate other devices.).
- Operate generators in open areas to ensure good air circulation. The challenge when you live in an apartment is knowing how to safely store enough gasoline. Have a gas siphon kit on hand.
- Test your generator from time to time to make sure it will work when needed. Some generators can connect to the existing home wiring systems.
- Always contact your utility company regarding critical restrictions and safety issues.
The Food and Drug Administration’s “How to Prepare for and Handle Power Outages” guide for home medical device users is another useful planning resource. Use it to organize your medical device information, identify the supplies for the operation of your device, and know where to go or what to do during a power outage.
Life support needs
Contact your power and water companies about your needs for life-support devices (home dialysis, suction, breathing machines, etc.) in advance of a disaster. Many utility companies keep a “priority reconnection service” list and map of the locations of power-dependent customers for use in an emergency. Ask the customer service department of your utility companies if this service is available. Note that even if you are on the “priority reconnection service” list, your power could still be out for many days following a disaster. It is vital that you have power backup and other options for your equipment. For example:
- Ventilator users should keep a resuscitation bag handy. The bag delivers air through a mask when squeezed.
- If you receive dialysis or other medical treatments, ask your health care provider for the plans in an emergency and where you should go for treatment if your usual clinic is not available after an emergency.
- If you use oxygen at home, check with your doctor to see if you can use a reduced flow rate in an emergency to extend the life of the system. Label your equipment with the reduced flow numbers so that you can easily refer to them. Avoid areas where there are gas leaks or open flames and post “Oxygen in Use” signs in your home. You should also use battery powered flashlights or lanterns rather than gas lights or candles when oxygen is in use (to reduce fire risk) and keep the shut-off switch for oxygen equipment near you so you can get to it quickly in case of an emergency.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Will a power outage immediately affect my condition or put me in danger?
- How long will mine or family member’s home medical device last without electricity?
- Can the power company or fire station help in the event of a power outage?
- Will my medical equipment alert me if the power outage occurs in the middle of the night while sleeping?
- How should I prepare for a power outage when traveling with my medical device?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.