With half of hurricane season still remaining for the Gulf coast and Atlantic seaboard, and with wild weather regularly striking other parts of the country, more Americans are getting a Kohler home generator. Why? One reason is food. Losing a refrigerator and freezer full of food is expensive. Plus, spoiled food can be hazardous to your health.
But a permanently installed Kohler home generator starts automatically and runs without frequent re-fueling so you’ll no longer have to worry. For readers who have not yet installed a Kohler, we offer the following tips on how to keep food longer and safer during an outage.
Store More Cold
Let’s say you’ve already prepared your emergency pantry and stocked up on enough water to get you and yours through a power outage. What about the food in your refrigerator and freezer?
How can you make perishables last longer? And how do you know what’s still safe to eat? Knowing what to do before and during an emergency can minimize food that may be lost to spoilage and reduce your risk of food borne illness.
What to do now
O.K., in Part I, we’ll cover “before an emergency.” Here’s what you can do now to prepare.
First, buy two refrigerator-freezer thermometers, one each for your fridge and freezer. These do not have to be the relatively expensive digital models — the analog versions cost under $10, some are less than $5.
It’s very important to remember that during an outage, most of your food is only safe to eat after a limited amount of time. A thermometer is the safest way to determine if food can be saved — or eaten. You’ll learn more about this later in: Are Your Perishables Safe to Eat? – PART II.
Second, buy an insulated cooler (maybe two if you’re a larger household or have lots of food). About coolers: there are some amazingly efficient, very-thick-walled models that can be expensive and are the best at keeping food cold.
But even very affordable Styrofoam coolers can be surprisingly effective, especially if they include a tight-fitting lid.
Third, make more cold! Think ice. Ice cubes won’t really do the trick because their high surface area means they’ll melt fast. Reusable freezer packs are better. But block ice is best.
Make your own ice blocks by freezing water in common kitchen items like plastic bins, cake pans or meatloaf pans. You can also freeze bottles of water or plastic jugs — when frozen, jugs are nicely contained blocks of ice with a handle! You may be surprised to find that in some cases the water won’t freeze until you move the container or open the cap. That’s a phenomena called “supercooling.”
And, no, you do not have to be concerned that frozen water jugs present a health hazard — that’s a common but thoroughly debunked misconception.
So here’s your plan: make it a practice to fill any available freezer space with those blocks or jugs of ice you made. Why? Because relatively full freezers keep food colder and safer significantly longer — up to twice as long — than nearly empty ones. Keep your empty coolers ready for use after you lose power.
You’ll need to use them when your refrigerator and freezer are no longer cold enough to keep food safe. Also, don’t forget to change your refrigerator and freezer(s) to the coldest setting before an expected storm.
Making Cold Last
In Part I of this emergency preparedness tip, we discussed how to prep your refrigerator and freezer “before” a power outage by “making more cold” to extend the safe storage of food. In this concluding part, we’ll cover the “after” — what you should do when you lose power.
When you lose power
You don’t have to go without power! A permanently installed Kohler home generator produces premium power quality with ultra-low levels of harmonic distortion, protecting even the most sophisticated electronics in your home.
However, if you don’t have a home generator and experience an outage, you should unplug electronics, including the refrigerator and freezer, to protect them from surges when power is restored from the utility grid.
Then you have an option: you can leave food in the fridge or, if you have any space, you can quickly move food that must be chilled – such as milk, meat and eggs — to the freezer.
Either way, keep the doors of both closed as much as possible. This is a good time to teach the family how easy it is to “lose cold” and to pre-visualize what they need to retrieve before opening the refrigerator or freezer door.
You can also wrap your fridge or freezer with blankets or moving pads to add another layer of insulation.
Your refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about four hours if it is unopened. While your freezer will keep food safely cold for about 48 hours if it’s full and unopened, or 24 hours if it’s only half full and unopened. Food must be stored at a temperature of 40° or less. So if the outage is relatively short, your food will be fine.
Those coolers that you purchased and “made cold” in PART I come into play if the outage lasts more than a couple of hours. As your food approaches 40° re-pack the perishables in your fridge into coolers with plenty of ice — those ice blocks you made.
If the outage persists, you’ll do the same with the food in your freezer. Transfer your thermometers! Pack everything tight. When possible, put ice on top of the food: cold air sinks.
If you have a source to replenish ice, you’re essentially camping and can really extend food storage. And dry ice is another option, though an uncommon one that requires special handling and consideration — venting, for example — and deserves a separate post.
Is your food safe?
Trust your thermometers, not your sense of smell. And never taste food to see if it’s O.K. — no sense in being your own (sick) guinea pig! The goal here is to keep all perishable food below 40°F.
You cannot safely eat food that has been above 40° for more than two hours. Period. You can still consume or re-freeze frozen foods if ice crystals are present throughout the package, though raw meat and poultry should be cooked before refreezing as a precaution. Fish and shellfish should not be refrozen.
If despite your good efforts you cannot maintain food storage below 40° or if you are unsure of the safety of any food, “when in doubt, throw it out” applies. Be ruthless with this principle — it easily beats becoming ill!
One final tip that might be counterintuitive: when you experience an outage, one really smart move is to sit down and have a good meal while perishables remain fresh.
Or take those burgers out to the grill — if conditions allow you to do so safely! You’ll reduce the volume of food that needs refrigeration, and you won’t have to worry later about whether they’re safe to eat.