You Light Up My Life – Flashlights and Other Ways to Deal with the Dark

Posted: March 24, 2013 in Individual and Community Preparedness
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My brain has overflowed with agencies and plans, so I need a break to get back to personal preparedness. The basics feel comforting – like coming home from a long trip (and less acronyms!). So let’s talk about lighting the dark.

Photo by Nick K.

Photo by Nick K.

Disasters in the Dark

Disasters feel doubly terrifying in the dark –  imagination takes over when you can’t see what’s happening. When Hurricane Sandy hit at night, even the media waited for daybreak before taking stock of damage – just like the movie scenes where dazed survivors slowly emerge at daybreak. Despite our fears, night-time disasters can be less dangerous. Death and injury rates often decrease with people safe at home instead of driving, working, and going to school. Many disaster responses are the same with or without light – take shelter, or drop/cover/hold.

Darkness becomes problematic when you need to move around. Identifying hazards, assisting each other, getting out of a damaged building – all need light to do safely. During the recovery phase, going lightless for days or weeks requires a shift toward our pioneer roots. Envision Little House on the Prairie, with the family playing games, singing, or reading by lantern light. I’ve experienced enough power outages to actually enjoy it – for a day or two!

Make Your Light Safe

Photo by Roger Glenn

Photo by Roger Glenn

Let’s start with safety – candles, fires, and flames are always bad lighting choices! (My pioneer scenario uses a battery powered lantern.) Fires can kill more people than the actual disaster – don’t add to the risk. When we congregate closer in the dark, chances increase for pets, kids, or even big bottoms (speaking for myself, of course) to bump candles or lanterns. In earthquake country, aftershocks knock flames over. Fireplace or wood stove use can cause attic fires if the disaster damaged your chimney (not always visible). If a fire starts, fire departments are often unavailable and water is scarce. And don’t forget potentially lethal carbon monoxide and toxic fumes created by flames and fuels in enclosed spaces.

Despite safety concerns, many people still use flames for emergency lighting – candles are found in most homes. At least follow basic precautions! Keep a fire extinguisher with you at all times! Never leave a lighted flame unaccompanied (even for bathroom breaks). Keep candles and lanterns away from foot traffic, on fire resistant surfaces, and away from flammable materials. Be sure the area is well-ventilated. Get your chimney inspected before use.

Photo by Kim Scarborough.

Photo by Kim Scarborough.

Emergency Lights – When?

I guess it’s no surprise that I like flashlights and lanterns. After water, they top my emergency supply list. You can never have too many lights! But not all lights are created equal, so let’s get practical. Use when, what, and where to guide emergency light purchases. If you own only a few flashlights, at least match them to your needs.

“When” will you need the light? Any light works for quickly checking things, moving around, or getting out of a building – providing the light is immediately at hand. However, to really check your surroundings, travel in the dark, or perform search and rescue, you need a bright beamed light. Headlamps can’t be beat for jobs that require your hands (repairs, clearing debris, or providing first aid). For group activities, use stationary lights – either pointed at a work area, or providing all around illumination. For “relaxation”, low-level lantern light creates a good primitive ambiance. For reading, a small bright light without “hot spots” decreases eye strain. For all settings, estimate how long you’ll need the light.

Emergency Lights – What?

“What” do the multitude of choices in the flashlight section mean? Ignore watts or volts – they describe power used, not light output. Lumens are the brightness measurement, and beam/throw distance tells how far the device projects “usable” light (usable = at least as bright as a full moon). Reflectors make the beam wide (flood, fixed) or narrow (spot, focused) – adjustable is best. Textured reflectors provide a smooth beam appearance, instead of typical bright and dark flashlight rings, but you have to pay for beam quality.

Most flashlights start bright, but gradually dim and yellow as batteries drain. “Half-life brightness” is the lumen measurement when batteries are at 50 percent, and “service life” estimates how long the light will shine before dropping power by 50%.  “Regulated power supplies” keep your light bright until batteries die – all or nothing. Of course, when these lights fail without warning, you’ll change batteries in the dark!

Lantern Light. Photo by Judy Baxter.

Lantern Light. Photo by Judy Baxter.

What are lanterns vs flashlights? Lantern can imply illumination in all directions (instead of a beam), or refer to any light with a handle. Some use lantern to mean fuel and flame lamps, as opposed to battery powered. Some brands interchange flashlight and lantern. Since words are not specific, read descriptions. (By the way, when a British person uses a torch, they aren’t breaking safety rules. That’s what they call flashlights.)

Specialized emergency lights include wall outlet units that charge continuously, turning into a flashlight when unplugged – not a solution for long-term power outages, but great immediate light. Some turn on automatically with power interruption. Voila! Emergency lighting for watching the disaster go down!  Shake or crank lights use physical exertion instead of replaceable batteries Consider them “buyer beware” – some provide excellent back-up, but others are poorly constructed, break easily, and give short duration light for the effort required. The Flashlights Review website has great buying guides and product reviews for all types of portable lights. REI also has good information on flashlights and headlamps.

Bulbs and Batteries

Bulbs matter! Traditional incandescent bulbs cast bright far-reaching beams, but they wear out quickly, break with a little rough treatment, and eat batteries for lunch – not great for disasters. LED bulbs last 50,000 to 100,000 hours, run much longer on one battery charge, and are virtually indestructible. LED alternatives vary from tiny key chain lights to flashlights, lanterns, and headlamps. Most are reasonably priced, sacrificing only some brightness and beam distance.

I recommend replacing most old incandescent emergency lights with LEDs. In a disaster, reliable lighting is essential. Besides, after figuring in battery cost, you’ll probably still come out ahead. The one exception is bright long-beam lighting (like search and rescue). LED technology in this area is advancing, but at a cost to both your wallet and to battery life. Incandescent lights are still an alternative for this flashlight type.

Photo by Raymond Yee

Photo by Raymond Yee

Batteries matter! Traditional alkaline batteries (AAA, AA, D) are your best bet for emergency use. Why? They store well (5-7 year shelf life) without losing much charge. They are reliable, cheap and easily obtainable (until disaster hits, when they immediately disappear off shelves). Combined with LED flashlights, you get lots of light for not much battery.

Why not rechargeable batteries? Not only is recharging difficult without power, but rechargeable batteries need pre-disaster TLC. They lose power while sitting idle, and must be recharged every 1 to 2 months. As they age, each charge lasts a shorter time. Even “low self-discharge” rechargeable batteries require recharging every 6-9 months. My green side loves rechargeable batteries for daily use – let’s keep alkaline batteries out of landfills! But emergency supplies should be easy to keep up – buying new alkaline batteries every 5 years is easier than recharging batteries every 1-6 months.

Lithium batteries are reliable, long-lasting, and effective in the cold (not true for alkaline batteries). Unfortunately, lights must be specifically designed for lithium batteries, and both devices and batteries are expensive.  They are probably overkill for standard emergency lights, although great for outdoor use.

Emergency Lights – Where?

Photo by Creative Tools

Photo by Creative Tools

Where will you use and where will you store your lights? Here’s where you consider things like size, weight, and ease of use. Make lights for key chains, go-bags, and travel small and lightweight. Sturdy and reliable is the rule for home and trunk use, even if that means more weight and bulk.

Here is a sample emergency light plan – tweak to your personal situation.

  • Purse or key chain: a tiny LED everywhere you go. Smartphone flashlight apps are great, but I wouldn’t use them in a disaster – save phone batteries for more important things.
  • Car: cheap quick grab LED flashlight (with batteries installed) in the glove compartment, plus a powerful headlamp with uninstalled batteries in the trunk.
  • Bedrooms: plug-in light on the wall, plus a bright long-beam flashlight with uninstalled batteries in your go bag, fastened to the bed. (I also hang my purse with LED on my bed post).
  • Every room: quick grab LED flashlight (with batteries installed) in a standard location.
  • Home emergency supplies: headlamp, small LED light, and a reading light for every family member; 3 bright long beam flashlights; 3 battery-powered general illumination lanterns; 3 directional standing lights; lots of uninstalled batteries for each.
  • Work: quick grab LED flashlight (with batteries installed) in a ready to reachlocation, plus a headlamp, battery lantern, and extra batteries in a drawer or closet (for when you’re stuck at work).
  • Travel: tiny LED plus a headlamp and set of batteries.

A bare bones plan: a tiny key chain LED carried everywhere, a reasonable flashlight in your glove compartment, one battery-powered lantern at home, and your best bright long-beam flashlight in your go-bag. Don’t forget extra batteries, stored in car, home, and go-bag.

Store batteries out of devices (except for quick grab lights). They last longer, and you’ll remove the possibility of battery corrosion destroying a good flashlight. Batteries last longer stored at cool temperatures, although alkaline batteries must warm up again before functioning fully. A recent Red Cross blog post suggested cutting open the hard plastic battery package in advance, and then taping it closed again – that way you’ll avoid struggling with horrible packaging in the dark. Consider storing batteries in a zip-lock bag taped to each light, with batteries taped together so the contact ends can’t touch.

Playing with flashlights. Photo by Pablo Alvarez.

Playing with flashlights. Photo by Pablo Alvarez.

Play In The Dark

Lastly, practice with your emergency lights! Plan a “dark night”, preferably when nights are long. Turn off every light at dusk, even the little LEDs on electrical appliances. In the city, close curtains to block artificial outside light. In the country, do the opposite – open curtains and maximize natural light. Then go about life in the dark, supplementing with flashlights as needed. You don’t have to be completely powerless – just dark (including no TV). It’s amazing how much you can do without much light.  You learn to use your other senses, take advantage of small amounts of natural light, and spend more time together.  It’s actually pretty fun playing in the dark. Besides, morning is only hours away, when you can emerge blinking into the light again.

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund, M.D.

  1. Mike Chavez says:

    Great article! These products also do a great job Dr. Sund. –

    • disasterdoc says:

      I thought about mentioning them. I haven’t actually used them, but my understanding is that they are more for marking things (including family members) when you are in the dark, and for a general glow than for providing functional light. If this isn’t correct, I’d love to know (so I can add some to my stash).

  2. kalsti says:

    Thanks for another good article!

  3. I found myself in need of a flashlight, nothing fancy, while on my last deployment to avoid tripping over cables, sandbags, and generators. I stumbled across a light that had upwards of 32 LED bulbs powered by a daisy-chained trio of AA batteries. It was powerful enough to light up my quarters (8’x15′ trailer) when I sat it on a flat surface pointed up, and allowed me excellent visibility at over 25 yds. Pointing it at someone closer than 10 yds tended to cause them to be the one tripping over the generators… Too bad it didn’t survive my transcontinental move.

  4. […] where it is due, the inspiration was found in perusing through Dr. Shelia Sund’s article on Flashlights.  I realized that it is easy to plan in the abstract, but less so to implement the minutae and […]

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