We've all been there. The lights flicker during a storm, then go out. It can be a fun time, for a prepper anyway -- regardless of how you view it, it's a good chance to see how your current supplies and Lights Out Plan fares in a "safe" grid-down scenario.
Whether it's a commonplace, temporary power outage caused by weather, or a more long-term, quasi-apocalyptic Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP), the conditions are very similar.
If the electricity is gone, water pumps will not pump, water will not flow.
If you're on a gravity feed system in a municipality/city, your water will continue to flow as normal for a period of time, but once the elevated tank runs dry the pumps will not be able to re-fill the resevoir. You could literally then be up poop creek. Estimates are that even with generators in place, without outside help, most municipalities' services will run dry in as little as 3 days or perhaps as long as 2 weeks if power is not restored.
Solution: Store water, use rain collection, install main drain shutoff (see "Sanitation" below).
If you're on a well in a rural area, generators are a great temporary fix if you had the foresight to dedicate a generator circuit to your well pump. Once the gas runs out, however, unless you have a solar pumping backup you're back to square one. Well owners also have the possibility of in-well pump failure; if your pump fails, the water may not be retrieveable.
Solution: Solar backup, handpump or even "bucket" retrieval system, cisterns/rain collection.
If you're fortunate enough to be near a water source such as a river, pond, or pool, assuming security is not an issue, consider having a water filtration system of your own which relies only on gravity to work -- these can be had for as little as $10 and really should be considered dogma for an prepared individual anyway. Portable water filters are also great if you need to leave for some reason. They don't rely on power and they can be easily packed.
Naturally, we need water to drink, but if the power is out for more than a day, sanitation quickly rivals thirst for priority billing. You need to be able to flush the toilet -- you need to have a "toilet" to "flush"! Disease and illness spread easily under unsanitary conditions, which can quadruple the problems of a simple lack of electricity.
Think about provisioning for a water resevoir on your property which either fills from a gutter system, or from your garden hose. Keep at least 100 gallons of water on hand for filtering emergency drinking water and for flushing the toilets. Do the math: If you only store 100 gallons, at normal useage, even a 1.5 gallon low flow toilet could easily consume 12 gallons a day for a family of 4 -- that's only 8 days of toilet flushing. . .if you use no water for drinking. We recommend 500 gallons.
You're in much better shape if you are on a septic system or leech field. Just like we should keep our gas tanks topped off, it's important to keep your septic holding tank as close to empty as you can afford. On septic, as long as you have water to flush with, you should be in good shape waste disposal-wise.
If you're on city water/sewage, however, you have a bigger concern. When the pumping finally stops, you're going to have severe sewer system backup. Odds are it's going to end up coming through your basement main drain, making your home pretty much uninhabitable. Can you imagine? Maybe you've been through that. This is a tough one. It took me several days and numerous uncomfortable phone calls to finally find a free-thinking plumber who would take on the task of installing a main drain cut off valve at my home, just outside the foundation. I'm not sure if it's technically up to code, but it seems like a legitimate safety precaution to me. It could really save your bacon.
The final alternative is to create a working, clean, well-functioning out house. If you have a wood stove, keep those wood ashes as they are great for covering leavings. You can look up plans and books all about that topic, but plan on it.
Final note on sanitation, hand washing, clothes washing, and personal hygiene cannot be under stated as a high-level priority. These things often get pushed to the back burner, so it's best to put your best foot forward and keep them up right off the bat. Make provisions to continue doing all of the above -- and be disciplined about it.
Solution: water storage, plumbing updates?, cleaning supplies, building supplies.
Great. The stove doesn't work. A cold can of beans gets old quickly and a box of macaroni and cheese looks like a 3 course meal. . .but the cardboard box laughs in your face because you have no means of boiling water.
If you have natural gas, you're lucky, it could last for weeks. Think about getting a propane gas grill (which you can use in everyday life, too), or at least a small gas camp stove. One five gallon propane tank will give you cooking, grilling, boiling, and fire capability for months on end if you use it wisely.
Wood fire is another option if your fire making is up to snuff and you have an outdoor/safe space to conduct a fire. Wood fires make a lot of smoke, though, which could attract unwanted attention to the fact that you have food. It's also fuel and time intensive. The long term availability of sticks, however, always makes fire a sure fire possibility.
Solution: propane/butane stoves, wood stoves.
We can pretty much do without air conditioning, but if it's winter and we lose power it's another story. The best solution for me is good old fossil fuels -- a wood burning stove. You might want to move on that ASAP as the tree huggers are constantly trying to ban wood burning stoves and have made headway on that, but 3 cords of firewood can secure your winter's heat (in the Midwest anyway) even during power outages. It's a pleasant, addictive heat and you can also use it for cooking.
A whole-house generator can be a solution, but generators come with another whole set of problems: maintenence, fuel, and noise. Generators also may not be able to operate your heating system, depending on what you have in place -- electric heat, for example, requires a very large, expensive generator and even then it's not that great. Plan on having extra blankets, warm clothes, cold weather sleeping bags, etc. to boot.
Kerosene heaters, propane "Buddy" type heaters, and even candles can provide adequate, convenient warmth, but whenever you burn an open flame you must plan for carbon monoxide issues. A simple cracked window can keep good, safe air flow going while a kerosene heater warms the room. Try placing cinder blocks or other heat-absorbing objects near your heater of choice so you can shut it down from time to time and still get the radiant heat stored in those objects.
Often not thought of is preserving the integrity of your household systems. A broken water pipe brings big issues. You may be able to use small propane heaters to keep a crawl space or basement warm enought to stop freezing pipes. Think about your insulation, too. An ounce of prevention in the water/heat departments could literally mean thousands of dollars in repairs and headaches.
Heat is a big problem and most solutions for your whole house are expensive and outside the scope of general survival supplies, but rather in the vein of home improvement.
Solutions: fossil fuels, insulation, personal clothing/bedding items.
Once that cell phone battery is gone, it is gone -- perhaps the satellites were taken out by a solar flare -- we can't count on traditional forms of communications during power outages, even less so, obviously in the event of an EMP. TV and normal radio stations could blackout.
It's important to have a plan for this scenario. If communication is not possible, your family or group should have a pre-designated meeting place for just such a moment. At that time, once you are all hopefully gathered you can discuss your next move.
There are plenty of readily available options for off-grid power for small devices. Small solar panels, small dynamo handcrank devices. . .tools which could help get your cell phone back up, charge an AM/FM radio, or even a HAM radio. Radios are important for keeping up to date on local information and emergency instructions.
NOTE: While conditions are similar for both power outages and EMPs, there is a BIG difference in preparations for each. A simple power outage is temporary. An EMP's effects are long lasting. All studies say our power grid could be inoperational anywhere from months. . .to a decade.
A month without power in the United States, nation-wide, would be catastrophic.
In a normal power outage, self defense is not really a concern. In a long term power loss, however, rioting for foods and services and for general discontent WILL occur. Not only would we have to contend with the basic necessities for life such as food and water, but personal security would trump everything else.
There are over 400 large transformers scattered around the U.S.. The company that makes these transformers has an annual production capacity of two (that's right, 2). If just 10% of the transformers went out, at current production levels it would take 20 years to rebuild -- assuming that company could get electricity and delivery of raw materials to manufacture. Make no mistake, an EMP that cripples our power grid would mean the end of life as we know it.
Separate in your mind "power outage" and "power outage by EMP" -- decide which threat you want to prepare for and act accordingly. If you go EMP, you are definitely ready for that seasonal power outage. If you go "just power outage" you are NOT ready for an EMP, I hope we've made the distinction clear.
In closing, being ready for power outages is a good thing. It can make life a lot easier, less stressful, and more comfortable when it happens. It feels good to be ready for seasonal outages, you'll look like a hero when it happens -- and it's a great start in learning to prepare for an EMP.