How to Deal with a Power Outage in an Apartment

Being an apartment dweller can be a tricky situation when it comes to power outage preparedness.  Not many apartment companies or landlords are going to appreciate you hooking up a noisy generator and playing with the breaker box.  In fact, it’s probably against your contract to do so.

It also may be the case that you’re tight on funds as well as space if you are living in an apartment, so the thought of buying a generator and figuring out a place to store it is out of the question.  

I spent nearly a decade living in apartments, and I’ve put together a comprehensive guide that will get you on the right track as you’re preparing to keep your family safe and comfortable when the lights go out. 


Water for hydration and hygiene

Make it a point this week to set aside one gallon of water and store it somewhere in your apartment.  A closet, under the bed — somewhere dark and away from sunlight.

The amount you store is subjective and everyone has different needs.  Having 8-10 jugs set aside per person is probably not a bad idea of where to start.  Even 3 gallons is better than nothing!

You can use old soda bottles, vinegar jugs, milk jugs, or just buy store bought water.  If you choose to use soda bottles, I would clean them really well with very hot water and do a bleach rinse before you store water inside to get rid of the leftover taste.

If you plan on using milk jugs just know that they will leak on you at some point.  Maybe a year from now, maybe 3. But they will rupture.  Exposure to sunlight will speed up this process.  

I use rinsed-out vinegar jugs for my water storage needs.

Being in an apartment, you’re likely hooked up to municipal water, so you may never lose your water during a normal power outage.  There’s always the chance that you might though, or there’s always the chance you’ll get a notice from the city regarding contaminants in the water.  

Having some backup water can alleviate a lot of stress.  Consider using a different source other than your municipal water to store your backup supply.

Food

First of all, have some food around that doesn’t need to be cooked.  Anything in a can is already cooked so you won’t hurt yourself, but depending on the particular food inside, some just taste better if heated.  

If you’re looking to cook we’re going to have to work with an open flame.  If you have a gas stove, just use a match to light it even in a power outage.

If yours is electric, you’ll want to look into investing in a camp stove which is fairly inexpensive.  Either a Coleman propane camp stove or a butane stove would work just fine. It is recommended that these be used outside on a patio where there is plenty of ventilation.  

Food staples that are great for quick energy and don’t use a lot of fuel are oatmeal for breakfasts and before bed, and minute rice paired with your choice of a Campbell’s Chunky Soup for lunches or dinners.   

The oatmeal can be paired with fruit, cinnamon, sugar, brown sugar, agave, raisins, etc.  The minute rice just requires water to be brought to a boil (only takes a few minutes with a camp stove) and a few minutes to heat up the can of chunky soup.

Energy and Lighting Needs

The first base to cover in this category is your lighting methods.  You can check out my resources page here to see my favorite lighting methods that do not break the bank.

Try to have at least one flashlight per person and a couple other lighting methods to supplement anything that breaks or you need additional lighting.

Eneloop rechargeable batteries in AA and AAA sizes are great options to have around in good times and even when the power goes out.  Yes, you can even recharge them when the power goes out!

How might we do this, you ask?

We do this by having a 400 or 800-watt DC-to-AC power inverter and pairing it with our car battery or a deep cycle marine battery.  I highly recommend getting a deep cycle battery for all power outage applications. A single 100 amp hour deep cycle marine battery should get you by in a short-term power outage without much problem.  

You’ll be able to power your communications devices, run a small TV (low wattage), and have basic lighting.  

Of course, with a 12-volt battery, you’ll need a charger but you can stick with a smaller one if you don’t plan on using this battery for anything other than a backup system.  

To learn more about these amazing batteries, you can check out my link here.  A review of my favorite and trusty inverters can be found here as well.

Cooling

Cooling is a little different than running a propane heater.  If you’re in an apartment and the power goes out an air conditioner is probably not going to be the item you go for to stay cool.

Air conditioners use A LOT of power and running one off of a battery bank won’t be an option.  You could certainly run a window air conditioner off of a properly sized generator if you are able to store one and feel comfortable leaving it running unattended with everyone else around.  

For all intents and purposes, what we are going to be looking to do to stay cool is harnessing the power of convection. That is, the evaporative cooling of your body by wind passing over it. To put it simply we are going to use small fans.

To power the fans we are going to go back to using that inverter that we talked about earlier and combine it with your car battery or deep cycle marine battery.  When looking for a fan to purchase you want one that will just meet your needs and not necessarily your wants.

Remember, the higher the wattage the fan requires, the quicker it will drain your deep cycle marine battery. The goal during a power outage is to conserve whatever power resources we have.

If you’re looking to run a fan off of your car battery, make sure to have the car running and the inverter hooked up to the battery under the hood.  Run an extension cord inside to power your fan.

Heating

When it comes to heating I don’t think you can get any better than the Mr. Heater brand of portable propane heaters. They’re economical in price, relatively lightweight, and propane canisters for them are at your local Walmart. To top it off they even have safety features like automatic shut off when the heater is being tipped over or if it senses low oxygen levels in the room.  These are a must-have for any apartment dweller or homeowner, for that matter!

I bought one of these new in the spring when it was on sale, and also picked up another one on Facebook Marketplace at a great price, so keep an eye out for one there. Remember: two is one and one is none!  It never hurts to have redundancy when it comes to your heating source and other essential items. If you do buy the item second hand, bring a propane canister along to test heater out before you hand over the cash.

The Mr. Buddy heaters (you can check out the current price of my favorite one here on Amazon) are a lifesaver when it’s freezing outside and the lights go out. The item will pay for itself the minute you have to turn it on and warm up your living room because everyone is getting the chills.

As a safety precaution, I crack the windows for a couple of minutes every once in a while just to let in some fresh air because I never put my full faith and trust in the safety devices of any machine or tool. I am comfortable running the heater while I’m awake however I would never think of running the heater while sleeping. in the one in a million chance with the safety feature fails you might not wake up.

Safety

No power outage emergency kit is complete without items. the importance of having these cannot be stressed enough.

If you’re going to be working with batteries, be it your car or a deep-cycle marine battery, make sure to be wearing safety glasses if nothing else.  If you’re doing everything right, the risk of a battery explosion due to leaking hydrogen is very low. However, if it does happen you don’t want to be blinded because of it.

Having a current and fully charged fire extinguisher is a must, especially if you’re going to be using any form of open flame.   You owe it to yourself as well as your roommates or family and all of the other tenants in the adjacent apartments to have one of these on hand.

Also, if you’re going to be using open flame or running a propane-fueled Mr. Heater, having carbon monoxide detectors that have a battery backup is a must.  Make sure to change the battery on them every year or two and conduct a battery test on them now and then.

Storage and charging of your battery backup system:

So you’ve decided that having a deep cycle marine battery is the route that you would like to take for your power outage preparations. Now the interesting question becomes, “just how do I store this thing that has all of these warning labels on it?

Perhaps the trickiest thing about living in an apartment is storing your items especially if you’re not really supposed to have them.   When I lived in an apartment we were subject to inspections by the fire department at least once, if not twice, a year. I doubt there’s anything in your lease agreement about having a battery inside your apartment, but I’m sure during an inspection it would be frowned upon.

An easy and cost-effective solution that I found would be to have a normal footlocker that you would use to store your battery, charger, and other power outage items in. Keep the lid open to vent the battery, but when inspections are going to happen I would just close it and put a simple lock on it.

Before you buy your first battery, you’ll definitely want to measure how tall the battery is from the base all the way to the top of the battery terminals.  Next, you will want to measure the inside dimensions of the footlocker that you intend on buying.

As an added safety, you could drill a series of holes around the lid of the Foot Locker to assist in letting any gas build up to be released in the event that the lid is closed.

With that being said I would never even think of charging the battery inside the FootLocker while the lid is shut. That is simply inviting an explosive disaster into your apartment, even if you have ventilation holes.

As far as charging your battery, the safest method that you could practice if you’re choosing to charge your battery indoors would be to provide ample ventilation and to bring your battery to a full charge and then disconnect the charger. Simply hookup and plug-in your charger once every week or two to top off your battery and unplug it again.

Doing this reduces the risk of any malfunction with your battery charger which might endanger your apartment and the complex itself. If your flooded lead-acid battery is new and healthy it should only lose about 5% of its charge after one month of sitting idle without being connected to a charger.  So, after two weeks, you only need to top off the battery about two and a half percent which won’t take too long.

So when it comes down to it, it’s really up to you how far you want to take your power outage preparation plans while living in an apartment complex. space is tricky and there’s always the ownership dilemma since your apartment is not really yours.

Definitely, have food on hand that does not need to be cooked and also have some food that can be cooked quickly if you choose to buy a camp stove for emergencies.  And remember that camp stove will come in handy in the future and can last you for decades if you do any camping, tailgating, or outdoor entertainment.

Location considerations

Often times a power outage is the result of a bad storm.  This might be a snowstorm, an ice storm, or a rainstorm.  In the case of really bad rainstorms, we need to give a little forethought to the possibility of flooding.

Last year we had a massive flood in our town that made the front page of The Weather Channel’s website, and national news.  The day was beautiful, 85 degrees and sunny. By 7 pm it started to rain a bit and by 10 pm it was a torrential downpour. Within hours most of our town of 30,000 people were under water.  The small river that runs through the center had turned into a massive lake and rooftops of certain structures were peeking out from the top of the water like icebergs.

Luckily, I live only 10 miles away and was spared this fate even though we got the same rain.  What I learned from many people who went through that who were also apartment dwellers is that it matters a heck of a lot whether or not you’re on the ground floor or an upper story.  

The ground floor tenants didn’t have any notice that a flood was about to happen, the water just started pouring in as the parking lots became lakes.  

Some of them had basement rooms.  A helpful tip that I picked up from them is that those who had Rubbermaid totes with lids in their apartments were able to save the most items from the rising water.  Those with only cardboard boxes lost a heck of a lot of expensive items.

That storm left many of my friends without power for well over a week and confirmed again that what I was doing to protect my family was worth it.  I can’t control everything, like flooding.  It is pure chance that I was spared from that, but I can control my backup electricity if the grid goes down.  

Proper Mentality

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that you need to have a balanced mentality as an apartment dweller as far as being really aware of your surroundings and not being paranoid.  What I mean, is that you share walls, floors, and ceilings with other people.

If any of them decide to do something stupid while the power is out (or at anytime for that matter), like bumping a pan of deep-fry oil above a portable camp stove inside the apartment might lead to you having to evacuate at a moment’s notice because of a raging grease fire.

I don’t recommend ever living in fear, as it is not healthy, but when your whole world and possessions can be turned upside down by the carelessness of someone else so easily, you need to be cognizant of what is and what might be going on during a particular scenario.

Whether you’re an apartment dweller or a homeowner, make sure to back up your files and pictures on a cloud server and/or a flash drive.  Make sure to scan or photograph all of your important documents as well.  Make sure all of your important documents and items are in a particular location and inside something that can easily be grabbed at a moment’s notice in case you need to evacuate due to fire or flood.


Final Thoughts

Having the right mentality is key to getting through any stressful situation.  Just because you don’t own your dwelling doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for taking care of yourself and your basic needs when the power goes out.

The amount of water that you choose the store is subjective but it doesn’t hurt to have even a small amount set aside for emergencies. You’ll thank yourself later.

You really can’t go wrong with buying some Eneloop nickel metal hydride rechargeable batteries and a charger even when times are good.  There’s an initial upfront cost for the batteries and charger, but at 2,100 full cycles that you can get out of each battery, it’s really worth it paying 3-4 times as much for the equivalent number of alkaline batteries. You will save so much money over the long run with those things and you will not be disappointed with the performance.

Again though if there’s one thing I would recommend buying it would be a power inverter with an extension cord —  even if you choose not to buy a dedicated deep cycle marine battery to go with it. Simply pairing the inverter with your car gives you so much flexibility with recharging your Eneloop batteries, powering your devices, and giving you basic lighting.

Just know that if you use your car battery while your car is not running you will be causing damage to your battery and shortening its life.  Starter batteries are simply not designed for repeated, continuous, low draw use without being simultaneously recharged by the car’s alternator. That’s what a deep-cycle marine battery is for.

The best thing you can do for yourself though, if nothing else, is to just start asking yourself the questions: What would I do this evening if the power were to go out? What if the power goes out for more than two hours and it’s an all night thing? What if it’s the freak storm of the decade and I lose power for seven days?

Have you taken the steps to make sure that you, your family and roommates are going to be taken care of?

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What_Size_Generator_to_Run_a_Fridge

Robert Van Nuck

Robert lives in central Michigan and enjoys running, woodworking, and fixing up small engines.

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