5 Ways a Portable Power Station Can Help You Through a Blackout

A week of very high temperatures throughout much of the US signals the return, for much of the country, of summer’s worst side: dangerous, even deadly heat.

This story is part of CNET Zero, a series that chronicles the impact of climate change and explores what’s being done about the problem.

But while it can be hot enough when the air conditioner is running all day and not quite making it comfortable inside, the real danger comes when the electrical grid becomes overwhelmed and the power goes out. Now you’re stuck sweltering in a home that’s getting hotter by the minute. On top of that, your refrigerator faces a countdown — if this goes long enough, you’ll have to throw everything out.

No matter what the temperature is outside, a portable power station can at least help you cope a little bit, even if it can’t make it feel like spring indoors. We’ve tested scores of power stations here at CNET, including examining how some can handle the appliance demands of our own homes.

Here’s what these big batteries can do.

What is a portable power station

These are no AA batteries. A portable power station is a large battery block, usually 20 pounds and up, that allows you to power regular appliances with a 120-volt AC outlet (the three-prong thing that runs most of your appliances). These batteries tend to pack 200 watt-hours and up of electricity — some with 5,000 watt-hours or more. What does that mean? Well, a 700-watt-hour power station once kept my fridge on for 14.5 hours in a simulated blackout (when it wasn’t running anything else).

These batteries come in a range of sizes and power ratings. The smaller ones might be able to keep your phone or laptop running for days so you can still make emergency phone calls or texts during an outage. A larger one could potentially power your entire home for a bit. Granted, the prices and sizes of these batteries go up as they get more powerful and have more capacity.

Our testing has examined, among other factors, how much usable capacity a power station actually has, because you likely won’t be able to tap all of the capacity of a battery. Here’s a look at how they’ve held up:

How a power station can help during a blackout

While some power stations are big enough and equipped with the right outlets to power your home (if you have the right equipment wired into your electrical panel) most won’t be able to keep the AC on during a power outage. Here are some things they can do.

Keep your phone alive

Blackouts can be dangerous situations, especially if you or a family member have health issues or are sensitive to the heat. Keeping a phone operating is vital for safety, allowing you to get help in case of an emergency. Having a working phone can also allow you to keep track of your electric company’s efforts in restoring power or book a hotel somewhere the power is on.

Is your refrigerator running? 

Refrigerators don’t use quite as much power as you might think. An energy-efficient fridge, like one that’s Energy Star rated, will use somewhere in the ballpark of a kilowatt-hour of electricity per day, if that. So if you have a power station with a capacity of, say, 2,000 watt-hours (like CNET’s favorite portable power station, the Jackery Explorer 2000 Plus), that could keep your fridge going for a couple of days.

Steve Conaway / CNET

CNET’s pick for the best overall portable power station, this battery packs a wide range of features and it’s modular, meaning you can stack batteries together for more power and capacity. It’s heavy, at 61.5 pounds, but that’s because it’s powerful.

In addition to saving you money on having to buy mayonnaise and milk again when the blackout is over, keeping the fridge cool can be essential if you have medications that have to be kept cold, like insulin. Plus: Cold beverages can help try to stay kind of cool during a heat wave.

Run a fan, or a portable air conditioner

Just because you probably can’t run your central air off of a portable battery doesn’t mean you can’t keep a window unit or a portable air conditioner operating to keep some parts of your home cool. You can also run a fan, which will help a little bit when the temperature is high.

Stay out of the dark

A portable power station can keep some of your larger lights on, in addition to giving you a way to keep rechargeable flashlights going longer. One way we test the usable capacity of power stations at the CNET Testing Lab, for example, is by connecting them to 110-watt work lights — and those things are bright. A power station with just one powerful light can keep you from living in the dark during a blackout. You can also just hook a power station up to your living room lamp.

Steve Conaway / CNET

CNET’s pick for the best extra-large portable power station, the Anker Solix F3800 is a big rolling cart of backup power. It can be stacked with up to six expansion batteries to a total capacity of 26.9kWh.

Stretch your power with solar panels

You aren’t necessarily stuck with whatever power was in the power station’s battery when the grid went down. Most power stations can recharge from your car, just like you’d plug in a phone. But you can also get portable solar panels that go with your power station and use those to stretch the power station’s life. Keeping the power station hooked up to solar panels during the day can ensure your fridge and phone stay on, even if the air conditioner doesn’t.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Our favorite portable solar panel is the Jackery SolarSaga 200, which comes in at 200 watts of charging power. It leads in efficiency among portable solar panels and packs a high watt-per-pound rating, meaning it’s more powerful but still portable.