1. Gas leak

How to prepare for home emergencies (© Frances Janisch/Real Simple)

Care for your pipes. If you’re excavating outdoors, don’t dig until you have your utility company flag where the lines are. Don’t use basement pipes to hang heavy items, and make sure the gas connections to your stovetop range and other gas appliances aren’t fraying or cracked. By law, “gas pipes leading into a concealed area should be labeled gas, but this isn’t always the case,” says Bob Kordulak, a code secretary for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors National Association. For extra peace of mind, you could install a natural-gas detector, which detects methane and propane gas leaks (ask your local utility company for recommendations). Still, your nose is your best system of detection.

Educate the family. Make sure every family member knows the basic rule of gas safety: that any time they smell an unmistakable rotten-egg odor or hear a hissing sound and can’t immediately identify the source, they should get out of the house.

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2. Power outage

How to prepare for home emergencies (© Frances Janisch/Real Simple)

Don't overload the circuit. Limit the number of appliances plugged into any outlet. When you lose power in one part of the house, it’s probably because your food processor, toaster and microwave are sharing the same outlet.

Back up files regularly. And consider buying extra batteries and a DC-to-AC auto adapter if you use a laptop computer. This will allow most laptops (12 volts or less) to be operated from the cigarette lighter of a vehicle.

Stash flashlights. Store one in each bedroom. Avoid lighting candles, if possible, as they could cause a fire.

Alert your power company about special needs. If somebody in your home relies on electrical medical equipment, call your power company now to let it know. Your home will be a priority when electricity is being restored.

3. Smoke alarms

How to prepare for home emergencies (© Frances Janisch/Real Simple)

Install many. Mount one on every level of the house and outside all sleep areas. 

Check the batteries regularly. Test them once a month and replace them at least once a year, unless you have units powered by 10-year lithium batteries (these still require monthly checking). Some smoke alarms are connected to the household electrical system and may or may not have a battery backup. It’s important to test these monthly, too. Regardless of the power source, buy new smoke alarms every 10 years.

Keep alarms clean. Dust and debris can cause malfunctions, so vacuum or dust alarms regularly.

Never disable an alarm. Newer detectors have hush buttons, so you won’t have to compromise the alarm’s power source just because you charred your toast.

4. Fire extinguishers

How to prepare for home emergencies (© Frances Janisch/Real Simple)

Choose multipurpose extinguishers. These are labeled as type “ABC,” meaning they are equipped to fight fires caused by ordinary combustibles, flammable liquids and electrical equipment. Make sure you have one in the kitchen, the garage, the basement and wherever your furnace and hot-water heater are located.

Inspect them regularly. If the gauge doesn’t read full (100%), have the extinguisher serviced if it’s rechargeable or buy a new one if it’s not.

Replace old extinguishers. “The dry chemicals in them degrade and become less effective over time,” says Chris Reynolds, a fire chief and a professor of public-sector and critical-infrastructure studies at the American Military University in Tampa, Fla.

Know how to use them. Once you’ve squeezed the lever, sweep the nozzle from side to side at the base of the flames until the fire appears to be out.