Light Sources

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

Image of a dead flashlight.
Just when you really need it.
By far the most familiar emergency lights are the common battery-operated flashlights. Here are the pros: Here are the cons: 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.

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.

Automobile lights

Image of a spotlight illuminating a house.
When a flashlight isn't bright enough.
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.

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.

Faraday flashlights

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:

Image of a NightStar.
The bracket keeps it
ready to go.
Like everything else they also have disadvantages: 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.

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.

Crank flashlights

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.

Glow sticks

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:
Image of kids holding glow sticks.
Just enough to see by.
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.

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.


Candles have a number of advantages:

Unfortunately, they also have one big disadvantage: 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.

Image of a 7-day candle.
Don't forget the matches.
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.

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.

Solar power

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 grid-intertied, 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 lanterns

Camping-type lanterns that use liquid or pressurized gas as fuel have one big advantage:

They also have a couple of big disadvantages: On balance, I do not feel that it is safe to use such lanterns for any type of indoor emergency lighting.

Kerosene lamps

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.