If you live in a part of the country that experiences intermittent power outages at certain types of year -- during tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms, or even just heavy thunderstorms -- you may be wondering what you can do to protect your home in the event of an extended power outage. When such an outage strikes during winter months, it can be even more inconvenient, as most gas or heating oil furnaces do run off the electrical grid, and will be unable to create or disperse heat without a steady current of electricity. Depending upon how long your power is out, this could lead to frozen pipes and other expensive issues. However, there are a few things you can do to help make the heat from your gas furnace more accessible, even when your home is without power for a few hours or days.
Purchase a generator
The most long-term effective option to keep your heater running under all circumstances is the purchase of either a portable or whole-house generator. This is especially true if you have forced-air heat, rather than a radiator -- although you may be able to rig the valve on your gas heater to open (letting warm air out), this won't help disperse the air through the house without an independent ability to power the blower motor.
Generators are available in all shapes, sizes, and types. Most generators run on gasoline, diesel, or propane fuel, although others are equipped to run on small wood "pellets" or biodiesel. If you've got a small budget and only want a generator for emergencies, you'll likely want to purchase a small, portable generator that can be hooked up to only the appliances you need most, like the furnace, refrigerator, or water heater. When not needed, this generator can be stored in a garage or basement.
However, if your home suffers multiple extended power outages each year, you may want to invest in a whole-home generator. These are generally connected to your propane or natural gas supply and are programmed to kick on as soon as the power grid detects a loss of electricity. In some cases, this transition is so seamless you may not even notice your power has gone out. These generators can come at a cost, but are often worthwhile when you consider the cost of replacing frozen food or repairing burst pipes following a power outage.
Look at your heater's components
If your heater is relatively old, it's likely that some crucial parts are entirely mechanical -- rather than electrical. This can mean that in a power outage, you may still be able to keep the heater working and producing heat; this heat simply won't be able to travel very far on its own.
To see if your heater can possibly be rigged to continue to provide heat during a power outage, check your pilot light. If you have an electronic ignition and your pilot light goes out during an outage, you may have trouble restarting it. However, if your pilot light doesn't have an electronic ignition, this is a good sign that you'll be able to keep this tiny flame going while your power is out. You may need to prop open the gas valve if it is electronically controlled in order to allow gas to reach the pilot light for ignition. Because this can be a dangerous proposition for the DIY-er, you may want to consult a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor to help you determine how best to provide your home with heat during a power outage.
This temporary fix won't keep you and your family warm if outside temperatures are below freezing, but this can at least prevent your pipes from freezing or bursting. This ensures that you don't come home to a mess once power has been restored.