Why Cold Weather Causes Power Outages

why does the power go out when it's cold

Power outages are annoying. But the waiting game makes it outright dangerous when it’s cold outside.

Let’s look at why the power goes out when it’s cold outside and what you can do to prepare.

How does the cold affect electricity?

Most power grids can handle low temperatures. It’s not so much the cold that affects power as much as it’s what it brings with it. 

High winds often come hand-in-hand with heavy snow and ice (similar to a summer storm). And that heavy precipitation builds up on the power lines and weighs them down until they snap.

Snow and ice can take branches out, too, which can cause all sorts of problems.

Why does the power go out when it’s cold?

The electricity can go out on a sunny day for a variety of reasons. When it’s cold outside, it multiplies the possibilities.

When the Cold Is Too Much

Freezing temperatures do put a strain on grids, and sometimes it will cause outages. It happens the most in regions that don’t see severe winter weather, only because they’re less likely to winterize electric system components.

What temp is considered hard freeze?

A hard freeze happens when it gets 28° or lower outside for at least a few hours. It not only puts strain on the electric grid and power lines but also destroys some crops and seasonal vegetation (and your plumbing).

Critters Are Cold Too

On warm and sunny days, squirrels and other critters run up and down your power lines. And, sometimes, it leads to them getting zapped and taking your electricity with them.

In the winter, it looks a bit different. Wildlife will use transformers for a warm shelter. It can cause power equipment to malfunction, leaving you in the dark.

Oh, and there’s not much a utility company can do to prevent it other than regularly check them and install pest control measures.

Ice, Ice, Baby


In a lot of cases, ice is the biggest enemy when it’s cold outside. 

  • Even the sturdiest of powerlines can break under the pressure of accumulating ice.
  • Thick branches can break under the weight and take out lines, transformers, and poles.
  • Ice can take down trees that block roads and keeps utility crews from responding and repairing them.
  • Cold weather means a more tedious job for utility workers. And a longer wait for customers.

Whipping Winds


Cold weather doesn’t always mean wind. But, when it does, it typically comes with a blizzard.

Some blizzards come with hurricane-force winds that can take down trees, branches, and powerlines. And, there’s nothing a utility company can do until the storm is over.

Can cold weather make you lose power?

While it’s rare, extreme cold temps can cause an electric system to overload and shut down. We’ve seen a recent example of an overworked grid going kaput.

Always Have a Plan for Power Outages

Regardless of the climate, you should always have a plan for any power outage. It becomes especially vital when it’s freezing cold outside.

Pre-Power Outage

An emergency winter power outage survival kit is a must if you’ve even got a slight threat of inclement weather. The better-stocked one is, the better you are prepared to handle any emergency.

  • You’ll need enough food and water for every family member for at least 72 hours.
  • Cellphone chargers (solar or car) (and a working phone)
  • Hand-crank or battery-operated radio (or a ham radio!)
  • Blankets
  • Flashlights
  • Tons of batteries
  • Carbon monoxide detectors
  • At least one fire extinguisher
  • Prescription and other medication
  • Evacuation plan

Weatherize Before Winter

Preparing for winter is checking with your insulation to see if it needs updating before the first blizzard hits. The better a home holds heat, the longer you can stave off freezing temperatures indoors. 

What temperature should you wrap your pipes?

While the temperature has to be at or below 20° F for pipelines to freeze, you will want to start considering wrapping the pipes when it reaches the 32° F freezing point. 

Electric Medical Equipment

Medical equipment like oxygen machines relies on electricity, so when it goes out, there is instant panic.

You can register your home with the local power company and community emergency programs so that it is known your household is a priority.

Secondary Non-Electric Heaters

Installing a wood stove or fireplace is some insurance that your family will remain cozy even when the power goes out. 

Generators are an option, but they’re dangerous, too. You will want a carbon monoxide detector on hand whenever you rely on a generator.

DO NOT run a generator indoors or in the garage. 

How do you survive if the power goes out in the winter?

The chances are you won’t die during a power outage during cold weather. But you can increase the odds of survival because of what to do after the lights go out.

Check Before Taking Action

Before reporting an outage, make sure it’s not just affecting you. It could be a fuse or breaker.

If you see a downed powerline, retreat and report it to the electric company as soon as possible.

What is affected during a winter power outage?

  • Lack of electricity can disrupt communication, water, and public transportation.
  • It can close businesses, stores, gas stations, ATMs, etc.
  • It causes food to spoil and contaminate water.
  • A power outage can affect medical devices.

Double Up on Layers

Throw on as many layers of clothes as it takes to keep you warm and that you can tolerate. But, the layering goes beyond hiding under jackets and long johns and mittens.

Draping dark blankets over sealed and shuttered windows will draw in any heat. And, keep all the windows and doors closed with towels tucked to block drafts.

Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Most carbon monoxide poisoning happens in the winter. Suffering from the cold is miserable, and it’s hard to resist the urge to get warm, even when it could be dangerous.

Don’t use generators, outdoor grills, or camping stoves indoors. 

Alerts and Notifications

They are so annoying but incredibly useful when it’s cold outside. There’s a chance that your cellphone dies and you’re out of any way to charge it. Limit your phone usage to texts, and keep enough battery to dial 911.

You will want to stock a hand-cranked or battery-powered AM/FM or ham radio. (and it’s not a bad idea to have a landline for emergencies.)

Is a winter watch or warning worse?

A winter watch means that there is a chance that severe winter weather is headed in your direction. It also gives you a good starting point to prepare for a possible power outage.

A watch is updated to a warning when for sure, one is coming and poses a threat to you and your family.

Prevent Further Frustrations and Damage

Unplug all your appliances and electronics when the power goes out to prevent a power surge that will take out everything. It is safe to leave on one lamp, just so you can find your way in the dark.

Hopefully, the pipes are well-wrapped to prevent them from freezing. Leave the faucet on a slow drip, too.

How long will a fridge stay cold without power?

If careful, a refrigerator can stay cold for 48 hours without power. A helpful tip is that the more you have in the freezer, the colder it will last.

By Anita Brown

Anita Brown is our go-to contributor to our emergency preparedness website. Anita brings a wealth of personal experience and professional expertise to the table, having weathered several awful natural disasters. Anita is currently working towards obtaining her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification.