Keeping Food Cold when the Power Goes Out


Recently, a driver neglected to lower his bed on his dump truck before heading down 4000 W. and took out a few power lines overhead, and in his wake, left our neighborhood without power early that warm afternoon.

Events happen that are out of our control. How we prepare for and handle the impact as it happens tells us where we may need to improve, so we may not be as affected by it if it occurs again.

For our family, we rely a lot on our refrigerator and deep freezer. As the power went out, we already knew, from that point until power was restored, which appliances were to remain closed and never opened. The moment one is opened, the inside air is replaced with the warm air from the room, which increases risk of spoilage of the food inside.

A standard refrigerator can maintain a sub-40-degree environment for about four hours. A deep freezer can retain an adequate frozen space for 24 hours when half full, or up to 48 hours when mostly full.

If, for some reason, you need to gain access to either appliance, you may as well make that time count. When you do this, get what you need, then take a quick moment and move as much as you can to the lower shelves, grouped together. Cold air falls as warm air rises. Keeping the food out of the upper shelves will help prolong the need to find another solution. This action may impact a half hour of use, but it will help keep things from spoiling that are higher up. Of course, don’t take your time doing this! Close those doors as quickly as you can after you are done.

What can we do when a power interruption extends beyond those thresholds? Within the first four hours, coolers can be staged with bags or blocks of ice. If you keep ice on hand, you’re ahead of the game. If not, luckily, most interruptions would be localized, so getting ice may mean making a run to a store in another area or neighboring city. If the outage creeps up on that four-hour mark, you will have what you need ready to use when you make the decision to move perishables from the refrigerator to the coolers. Once you’ve supported the refrigerated items, the time has come to think about the frozen products in your home.

For freezers (regular and deep), the plan is a little different and can rack up in cost quickly. Using bagged or block ice won’t do anything for these. What you will need is some dry ice. Many grocery stores carry this, but other places like AirGas, a welding gas supply store, also carry dry ice. You would either need to make space on your top shelf in your freezer to place the dry ice on (preferred) or transfer your frozen items into coolers and place the dry ice on top of them, never underneath. Anything below the level of dry ice will remain frozen, and may even freeze harder, which is a plus.

Another route, which takes planning, would be to have a generator adequate for your needs with fuel stored on hand. The generator can then be powered up and the appliances connected to it. Plan on running the generator for 15 minutes every hour for the appliances to “catch up,” then shut it down until the next interval time. This way, you can save fuel and still maintain the environments for your perishable and frozen foods.

Having a plan to ensure that our perishable, stored foods can be maintained during small incidents will help until power has been restored. Of course, the last option is to have one big block party and cook it all up with the neighbors.

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