How to Prepare for a Bay Area Public Safety Power Shutoff

Thomas Smith
Backup generatorThomas Smith/Gado Images

In 2018, Pacific Gas and Electric warned all Californians that they should be ready for planned power shutoffs. If the risk of wildfires was too high, PGE said they would shut down parts of their grid to avoid the risk of damaged equipment sparking fires. Californians were told to prepare for up to five days with no power.

In early October 2019, PGE made good on that promise. In a now infamous event, the utility shut off power to over 1 million customers, including much of the Bay Area. Some people got power back quickly, but others were in the dark for days. In late October, PGE announced that they were doing it all again.

Apparently, this is going to be a thing. With more public safety power shutdowns on the horizon, here’s five tips to prepare for the next outage, from someone who lived through the last one.

Fuel Up Your Car

When the power goes out, so do the gas pumps. In the last planned outage, people had trouble fueling up their cars, finding gas stations draped in yellow caution tape. Having a car is essential during an outage, especially if you needed to evacuate, should a wildfire start. And a car can give you a way to cool down if it’s hot, or even charge your devices (albeit in an inefficient way), as long as you follow safety guidelines like those below.

Make sure to fuel up as soon as a shutdown is announced, though. On the night before the early October shutoff, gas stations were mobbed, and there were lines reminiscent of the oil crisis in the 1970s. During fire season, it’s probably not a bad idea to keep your car above 50% at all times in case there’s a sudden shutoff.

Learn to Manually Open Your Garage

For better or worse, Californians are car people. We spend much of our time in cars, and we build our homes so that our cars can live with us in them.

This works fine, until you realize that turning off the power kills your automatic garage door opener. And you can’t simply lift the door manually--the automatic opener has to be disengaged or else the door gets stuck in a locked position.

Again, this is a safety issue. Imagine having to evacuate quickly and finding your car is stuck in the garage. Luckily, there’s a solution. Automatic garage door openers come with a manual disengage lever, which disengages the system and lets you open the door without power.

Read the manual for your system, and practice using the lever before an outage. On mine, you pull a red cord, the door clunks down, and you can open it yourself. Be very careful, though--the doors are heavy and can come crashing down while in manual mode.

Plan for Lighting

Most people in a modern society don’t realize how dark it is at night when there’s no power around at all. Even if you turn off the lights in your home, there’s almost always an ambient glow from other lights in your area.

During an outage, these are all extinguished, and it gets really, really dark.

Plan ahead with two kinds of lamps--directed and diffuse. Directed lamps are flashlights and other lights that shine a “spotlight”-like beam in a specific direction. They’re great for navigating around a dark house at night, or walking outside during an evacuation. You can also use them for signaling by pointing the beam at something.

Diffuse lights, on the other hand, are lanterns and other lights that illuminate a whole area. They’re great for general activites like cooking, reading, or finding that garage door disengage lever in the dark. A house illuminated with diffuse lanterns is also a lot less spooky than a dark one illuminated only with flashlights, which is an important consideration if you have kids. Camping lanterns are a great bet, but remember to stock batteries too.

Think of Your Devices

It sounds silly to worry about your phone during a potential disaster, but phones and other devices are a lifeline to the outside world, and a way to learn crucial information about evacuations or relief centers.

Authorities used to recommend keeping a battery powered radio in your emergency kit, and it’s probably still not a bad idea. But keeping a charged phone is now just as important.

Invest in a sizable battery pack with charging ports for your phone, and keep it charged. If you have the means, you might consider investing in a solar charger, too, from a company like Renogy. And consider getting a car charger for your phone, so you can use your car as a giant battery charger in a pinch, following the safety rules below.

Brush Up On Traffic Laws and Car Safety

When the lights go out, traffic lights go out too. Take a moment to read up on the local laws about what to do when a light is out. In most places, if a traffic light is out, it should be treated as a four way stop. But don’t assume other drivers know that! During the last outage, there were plenty of near misses at intersections in my town. Use caution any time you’re going through a dark intersection.

And here’s another important tip in terms of safety. You might be tempted to sit in your car, to cool down or to charge your phone. That’s usually fine, but if it’s running, make sure it’s not in your garage, even if the door is open. Carbon monoxide can injure or kill quickly, and your CO alarm may not function normally in an outage.

With a little prep, you can be ready for the next shutoff, no matter when it happens or how long you’re in the dark.

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Award-winning entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Gado Images. Thomas writes, speaks and consults about artificial intelligence, privacy, food, photography, tech, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As a professional photographer, Thomas' photographic work regularly appears in publications worldwide. Pitches/news tips:

Lafayette, CA

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