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When the Lights Go Out

December 1, 2008

Power outages are a common problem where I live. Of course we’re not exactly on a power grid. It’s more like we’re at the end of a single long power line, so any problem along the line affects everyone from there to the end. You may be in a better situation, but even in the big city the lights can go out. For us it’s usually just a matter of hours before the lights come back on, but sometimes it can be a bit longer. During one particularly bad ice storm we were without power for 10 days, and after a recent hurricane we went without power for 5 days even though we are over 200 miles from the coast. So power outages are something that we are pretty well prepared for. Of course a power outage can affect more than just lights. Heat, air conditioning, refrigeration, an electric cook stove, cordless telephones, radios, televisions, and many other items depend on electricity; but right now we’re just talking about lights.


When the lights go out, the first thing that we reach for is one of our plug-in rechargeable emergency flashlights. These are super handy because they are always charged up and they have a little blue night light that makes them easy to locate in the dark. I’ve never timed them but I would say they are good for 30 minutes or so. Not a long time but long enough to find and light kerosene lamps, hook up a generator, or etc. I personally have little use for battery operated flashlights. Every time I’ve needed one it seems like the batteries are always dead. The plug-in flashlights are not expensive, about 10 bucks, and I have three of them plugged in around the house. One thing that can fail on these lights is the bulb. I bought several extras that I keep in my supply closet. I also have two hand-cranked rechargeable flashlights that come in handy if the plug-ins run down.

Propane Lantern

For a really bright area light it’s hard to beat a propane lantern. I have a Coleman brand lantern that has served me well for years. I keep about twenty of the small propane bottles in my outside storage building. I also keep about 8 extra mantels and an extra glass chimney in my storage closet. The extra glass chimney costs about 10 bucks, and I have had two or three break over the years. One broke for no reason that I could tell. It just cracked while I was looking at it. So keep at least one extra on hand. Word of Advice: Buy these now. When there is a prolonged power outage, lanterns, cook stoves, propane heaters, and propane bottles fly off of the shelves.


Candles are useful in a pinch, but they don’t really put off much light. They don’t last that long, and they are dangerous. I use them only in candle lanterns because I am afraid that the open flame may cause a fire. I usually pick up candles on the cheap at the Goodwill store or at garage sales.

Kerosene Lamps

Kerosene lamps, also called oil lamps, were a mainstay of home lighting throughout the 1800’s. They are just as effective today. Kerosene lamps provide good light, they are inexpensive to buy, and inexpensive to operate. You can buy kerosene lamps at Wal-Mart, or at almost any hardware store. Don’t be suckered into buying the pretty bottles of colored and scented lamp oil. Way too expensive. Go to your local hardware store or to one of the big home centers like Home Depot. I always buy the lower grade bulk kerosene to burn in my lamps. It burns fairly clean and has little odor. Bulk kerosene can be purchased from most hardware stores for about 5 bucks per gallon. You bring your own approved fuel container and the people at the hardware store will fill it from a 55 gallon drum. Five gallons of kerosene will go a long way. Just to see, I put 1/2 cup (4 ounces) of kerosene in one of my lamps; and it burned for 6 1/2 hours. I have half-a-dozen kerosene lamps in my house, and I keep about a dozen extra wicks in my supply closet. I also have 6 extra glass chimneys and 10 gallons of kerosene in my outside storage building. Don’t underestimate the power of a kerosene lamp. I keep one on my bedside table when the power is out, and it is plenty of light to lay in bed and read by. The trick is to keep the wick adjusted so that it creates a bright flame with no smoke. Flipping on lights is a real habit. We’ve had the electricity go out before and I’ve noticed that for the first couple of days every time I walk into a dark room I’ll flip the light switch, even if I’m carrying a kerosene lamp in my hand. The minute I flip the switch I think “You moron, the electricity is out.” After a few days you quit doing it, but it’s kind of funny and irritating at first.

The Home Generator

A lot of folks who live in the country, like me, have a portable home generator that they can hook up when the power goes out. I seldom use my generator just to run lights. It is reserved for running the refrigerator and freezer for a few hours a day to keep food from spoiling, or running the well pump to fill up water bottles. Of course, when the generator is running I take advantage of the power to charge up my rechargeable flashlights, cell phones, walkie-talkies, and my wife’s laptop computer. A good generator should definitely be part of your preparedness plan, so I will address generators and how to pick the right one in a future post.

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