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Winter Power Failures

Power supply interruptions can last from a few hours to several days and are often caused by freezing rain, sleet and/or high winds which damage power lines and equipment. An extended power failure during winter months can result in a cold, dark home and damage to walls, floors and plumbing.

Preparing for winter power failures | During a winter power failure | Protecting electronic equipment | Evacuation | Downed power line | Home generators | After the power returns | Food spoilage

Preparing for winter power failures

Many Canadian home-heating systems depend upon electric power. To prepare for a power failure, you can install a non-electric standby stove or heater. Choose heating units that do not depend upon an electric motor, electric fan or other electrical device to function. It is important to adequately vent the stove or heater with the correct type of chimney flue. Never connect two heating units to the same chimney flue at the same time. If it is necessary to vent the standby heater to the existing chimney flue used by the furnace, first disconnect the furnace from it. Use only fuel-burning heaters certified by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or Canadian Gas Association.

If the standby heating unit will use the normal house oil or gas supply, have it connected with shut-off valves by a competent technician.

If you have a wood-burning fireplace or woodstove, keep a good supply of fuel on hand. Clean the flue every fall. The creosote that builds up in the flue can ignite in sustained high temperatures and cause a chimney fire.

Before considering the use of an emergency home generator during a power failure, check with furnace, appliance and lighting fixture dealers or manufacturers regarding power requirements and proper operating procedures.

*IMPORTANT: If someone in the home relies on electrically powered life-sustaining equipment, register with your electric supply authority (NB Power customer service line: 1-800-663-6272).

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During a winter power failure

Check whether the power failure is limited to your home. If your neighbours’ power is also out, notify your electric supply authority (NB Power power outages line: 1-800-442-4424). If your neighbours have power, check your own circuit-breaker panel or fuse box. If the problem is not a breaker or a fuse, check the service wires leading to the house. If they are obviously damaged or on the ground, stay well back and notify your electric supply authority.

Turn off all tools, appliances and electronic equipment and turn the home heating thermostat(s) down to minimum for the following reasons: 

  • Tools and appliances left on will start up automatically when service is restored. Turning them off will prevent injury, damage or fire. 
  • Power can be restored more easily when there isn’t a heavy load on the electrical system. 
  • Leave one light switch on, so you know when power is restored.

Don't open your freezer or refrigerator unless it is absolutely necessary. A full freezer should keep food frozen for 24 to 36 hours if the door remains closed. In the winter, you can sometimes store perishable food outside in protective containers in the snow. Storing food outdoors does, however, require caution. There are risks posed by unsanitary conditions, variable temperatures and passing animals. The sun’s rays could melt frozen food and cause refrigerated food to become too warm. If the temperature is cold enough to keep frozen foods frozen, it will be too cold for refrigerated foods.

Don't use charcoal or gas barbecues, camping heating equipment or home generators indoors. They give off carbon monoxide. Because you can't smell or see it, carbon monoxide can cause health problems and even kill you before you know it's there.

Use proper candle holders. Never leave lit candles unattended.

Even in very cold weather, it can take several hours for a house with closed doors and windows to become too cold for comfort.

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Protecting electronic equipment

If a power surge occurs when the power returns, it could damage sensitive electronic equipment such as computers, microwaves and VCRs. Protecting these appliances with a surge-proof power bar is a smart and inexpensive precaution.

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If you have to evacuate during a winter storm:
  • Turn off the main breaker or switch of the circuit-breaker panel or power-supply box. 
  • Turn off the water main where it enters the house. Protect the valve, inlet pipe and meter or pump with blankets or insulation material. 
  • If you have a standby heating system, make sure it produces enough heat to prevent the plumbing from freezing. If not, or as a sensible precaution, drain the water from your plumbing system. Starting at the top of the house, open all taps and flush toilets several times. Go to the basement and open the drain valve. Drain your hot water tank by attaching a hose to the tank drain valve and running it to the basement floor drain. (If you drain a gas-fired water tank, the pilot light should be turned out – and the local gas supplier should be called to re-light it.) 
  • Unhook and drain washing machine hoses. 
  • Don’t worry about small amounts of water trapped in horizontal pipes. Add a small amount of glycol or antifreeze to water left in the toilet bowl, the sink and bathtub traps. 
  • If your house is protected from groundwater by a sump pump, it won’t work if the power fails. Clear valuables from the basement floor in case of flooding.

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Downed power line

  • Call your electric supply authority (NB Power : 1-800-442-4424) with the exact location of the downed line. 
  • Keep back a minimum of 10 metres (33 feet) from wires or anything in contact with them and warn others of the danger. 
  • Always assume that the lines are live. It is difficult to distinguish between power lines and other utility lines (for example, telephone or cable lines) and they also carry sufficient power to cause harm. Treat all lines as a danger.

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Home generators

Home generators are handy for backup electricity in case of an outage but there are hazards to keep in mind.

Connecting a generator to an existing electrical system should be done only by a qualified technician and approved by your electric supply authority. Otherwise, serious accidents can result. The electricity produced by the home generator may follow the electrical lines back to the transformer, creating a higher voltage current that can endanger the lives of utility employees working on the lines nearby. Anyone touching equipment powered by the generator is also in danger. A generator connected to the existing electrical circuit could also be damaged when the main power comes back on, potentially exploding and causing a fire.

To operate a generator safely, follow the manufacturer's instructions. Always ensure that the generator operates outdoors in well-ventilated conditions, away from doors or windows, to prevent exhaust gases from entering the house. Connect lights and appliances directly to the generator. If extension cords must be used, ensure they are properly rated, CSA-approved cords.

*IMPORTANT: Directly connecting a generator to a household electrical circuit can endanger the lives of both household members and utility workers.

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After the power returns 

If the main electric switch was turned off, check to ensure appliances are unplugged to prevent damage from a power surge when the power is restored. 

  • Do not enter a flooded basement unless you are sure the power is disconnected. 
  • Do not use flood-damaged appliances, electrical outlets, switch boxes or fuse-breaker panels until they have been checked and cleaned by a qualified technician. 
  • Replace the furnace flue (if removed) and turn off the fuel to the standby heating unit. 
  • Switch on the main electric supply. 
  • Give the electrical system a chance to stabilize before reconnecting appliances. Turn the heating system thermostats up first, followed in a couple of minutes by the reconnection of the refrigerator and freezer. Wait 10 to 15 minutes before reconnecting other appliances. 
  • If you had to turn water off and drain the pipes, close the drain valve in the basement. Turn on the water supply. Close the lowest valves and taps first and allow air to escape from upper taps. Make sure that the hot water heater is filled before turning on its power supply. Rinse out the dishwasher and washing machine if necessary. 
  • Warm the house slightly above normal temperature for a few hours to allow it to dry thoroughly. 
  • Restock your emergency kit so the supplies will be there when needed again.

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Food spoilage

Monitor food supplies in refrigerators, freezers and cupboards for signs of spoilage. If a freezer door has been kept closed, food should stay frozen for 24 to 36 hours, depending on the temperature. When food begins to defrost, it should be cooked; otherwise it should be destroyed in accordance with instructions from your local public health authorities.

As a general precaution, keep a bag of ice cubes in the freezer. If you return home after a period of absence and the ice has melted and refrozen, there is a good chance that the food is spoiled.

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