Nobody wants to be left in the dark, and when the electric grid goes
down it can get really dark. This is not just a matter of comfort
and convenience: If someone is sick or injured at night, or if
anything else happens that demands immediate attention,
you will need an independent source of light.
There are many options available, some much better than others.
Battery-operated flashlights and lanterns
By far the most familiar emergency lights are the common
battery-operated flashlights. Here are the pros:
Just when you really need it.
Here are the cons:
- Simple and easy to obtain and operate.
- Reasonably bright.
- Low initial cost.
Since most of us are not very good at rotating supplies like
batteries, and since a flashlight is utterly useless without a
good battery, I don't recommend these.
- They need batteries, which tend to go dead in storage.
I consider this a crippling disadvantage.
- If you rotate the batteries properly, you'll spend far more
on batteries than on the original flashlight.
You can buy flashlights with a rechargeable battery that you leave
plugged in to keep the battery charged, and that does help somewhat,
but what happens after the first couple hours of use when the
battery runs down? Without electricity you can't recharge it,
and you can't replace the battery.
There is one special case of a battery-operated light
that I do recommend: Keeping a
12-volt spotlight or floodlight in your car. Because it is powered
by your car battery (through the "cigarette lighter" power outlet) and
your car battery is automatically kept charged every time you drive,
the problems of battery cost and rotation don't apply here.
If you make a habit of keeping your gas tank at least half-full,
you'll have the ability to recharge the car battery over and over
just by running the engine at idle for a few minutes.
When a flashlight isn't bright enough.
In addition, this gives you one source of light which is very bright.
You don't need all your lights to be extra bright, but there are situations
where it would be really handy to have at least one that is.
Try to get one with a long cord.
To find one of these:
Remember that even without a special 12-volt light, you can always
point your car in the desired direction and use the headlights.
This isn't very flexible, but in a pinch it's a lot better than nothing.
In recent years we've seen the appearance of "Faraday lights" which
are powered by shaking the flashlight to move an internal magnet
through an internal coil of wire. You don't have to understand the
physics; just shake it and it lights. They have some great advantages:
The bracket keeps it|
ready to go.
Like everything else they also have disadvantages:
- Indefinite shelf life. You can leave it neglected in a closet for
ten years, and when you pick it up it will work.
- Zero cost for batteries, and nothing to remember to rotate.
- Can be used for an unlimited time (weeks or months) without
running out of anything.
- Great reliability (if you get a good one).
- You can let your kids play with them without incurring any cost or
risk of dead batteries. Just train the kids to put the flashlights
back in the emergency kit when they're done — or better yet,
give each one his or her own light.
- The NightStar brand is safe for use in an explosive atmosphere,
which sounds exotic but if you have to evacuate a building
or area where there is a broken gas main, that's a huge advantage.
Overall I love these, and we keep one in each car plus a couple in the
house — however you have to be very careful of what brand you get.
The only one I recommend is the NightStar by
Applied Innovative Technologies.
All the others I've tried have been (in my judgment) of unacceptable quality,
but I have never had
a NightStar fail, even when used daily for months at a time
or left to bang around under a car seat for years.
- Relatively dim light, but adequate to get around by.
- Higher initial cost (about $30 each).
- Many brands have terrible quality.
- They are so sturdy
that very young children may use them to brain each other like mine did.
They have about the same hazard level as a large wooden building block.
- You must keep them away from computers, disk drives, cassette tapes,
and anyone with a pacemaker. The magnet in them is so strong it can
cause damage to anything magnetically sensitive.
You can also get a bracket for them (as shown in the photo) for about $4,
and that's a great way to keep the flashlight handy.
You can also get a belt holster for them, which looks totally cool but
I have to admit I've never actually used mine.
I've tried a bunch of these, and every single one (even the
higher-quality expensive one) eventually broke after only
modest use. Although the basic idea is good, in my opinion they
there are just so many moving parts under so much
stress that anything with acceptable reliability would have
an unacceptably high price.
I don't recommend any of them.
Another possibility to consider are those "glow sticks" that
trick-or-treaters like to carry and/or wear on Halloween.
They have one big advantage:
They also have some drawbacks:
- Very safe, even for young children.
- Their light is fairly dim, barely adequate to walk around
in a dark house.
- Single-use, which drives up the cost.
- Limited shelf life (they go stale after a couple of years) so
you have to keep replacing them, which also drives up the cost.
The cost argues against using these as a primary source, but if you
have children in your home it can be handy to keep a box of them around.
We kept one by each kid's bed for years.
Because children think they're fun, they can make the idea of doing an
occasional disaster drill more attractive to the little ones by having
them activate a light stick as part of the drill and then letting
them play with it after you're done.
Just enough to see by.
One good idea for keeping the cost down is to shop the
drugstore/supermarket/department-store the morning after Halloween, when
they'll probably be marked way down to clear shelf space for the next holiday.
If you can't find them for a good price locally,
you can get them pretty inexpensively on the Internet:
Note that the Cyalumes typically have a 4-year shelf life,
vs. 2-year for many other brands.
- Buy.com has 100 little ones for $14 including shipping.
- Emergency Essentials
has the larger 8-hour sticks for about $1.25 plus shipping.
- More Prepared has a limited selection (also at $1.25 each), but they carry the 30-minute high-intensity sticks.
- Glow Sticks has a case (25) of the 12-hour ones for $16.
Candles have a number of advantages:
Unfortunately, they also have one big disadvantage:
- Simple and reliable.
- Indefinite shelf-life.
Having an open flame burning indoors
after an earthquake, when there is likely a lot of debris around
and when the local fire departments will be stretched way beyond
capacity, is a Really Bad Idea.
I do not recommend using candles of any kind as a light source
in the immediate aftermath of a quake.
- Open flames are dangerous.
If the damage to the electrical distribution grid is widespread,
your family and your neighborhood may find that you've had time
to clean up some of the debris to reduce the risk of
fire but you're still waiting for PG&E to get your electricity back on.
Even in this case I'd be extremely cautious, and the only type
of candle I'd even consider is a glass "7-day" candle.
Because the burning wick is enclosed inside a glass container, there
is somewhat less risk of setting your house on fire, but I'd still
strongly suggest keeping a fire extinguisher handy and never
leaving a burning candle unattended, not even for a minute or two.
Don't forget the matches.
There are a lot of religious/spiritual stores that sell such candles
for $5-$10, but you can get them for $2-$3 each (plus shipping)
if you shop around:
One problem with these is that once they're partially burned down, it is
impossible to reach them with a normal match to re-light them.
You can buy special long matches, but I find it simpler to just use a
pair of plain old household pliers to hold the match;
this extends your reach enough
to light the wick even when the wax is almost all the way to the bottom.
If you do choose candles, don't forget to store a box of matches with them.
Also remember that, even if you never use them for an emergency,
these candles combine really well with
a couple hours of babysitting, a little wine, and your spouse.
If you put solar panels on your roof, then you'll be all set, right?
Wrong. Almost all solar-electric systems in this area are
which means they have no batteries and will shut themselves
off whenever the grid goes down.
This may seem like a stupid idea at first, but it's actually
necessary to avoid electrocuting the repair personnel
who will be working to restore service.
It is technically feasible to overcome this problem by adding a bank of
batteries and a special disconnect switch, but that adds significant cost
to the system with only a dubious gain so very few people choose to do it.
Another option is to have a separate solar panel which is dedicated to
recharging flashlight batteries. This can also work, but that isn't cheap
either and for most people it's just not worth the expense and trouble.
Also remember that any photovoltaic panel will run at reduced
efficiency during the rainy season, so if you want to be sure you have
enough power during a disaster you have to build the system rather larger
(and pricier) than you'd initially expect.
Camping-type lanterns that use liquid or pressurized gas as fuel
have one big advantage:
They also have a couple of big disadvantages:
- They are much, much brighter than almost any other portable light.
On balance, I do not feel that it is safe to use such lanterns for
any type of indoor emergency lighting.
- If you plan to use them for many days, you have to store enough fuel,
and that means keeping a significant quantity of highly flammable material
around your home. Frankly, that gives me the creeps.
- The flame is so powerful that you have to worry about carbon
monoxide build-up. When used for their intended purpose (outdoors or in
a drafty tent) that isn't so much of an issue, but inside a building
you could have a real problem.
Our ancestors lit their homes with kerosene lamps for a long time,
so why can't we? Well, I've used them and if you get a good one
they do work and provide a nice warm, bright light,
but they are really not ideal for a disaster area:
On a dining room table in normal times, or in a Minnesota blizzard
when the power fails, they're OK.
After an earthquake, not so OK.
There are good reasons that most people switched from kerosene
to electricity as soon as it was available.
- You have to store fuel, and occasionally rotate it.
- They can be messy and awkward to refill.
- The wicks or mantles tend to be delicate and fragile,
and the glass enclosures are breakable as well.
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This page was last updated on 2013-02-23.