Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Don’t be left in the dark: which kinds of power failure back-up lights work best in an earthquake?

What’s worse than being woken up by a large earthquake?  How about being woken
up by a large earthquake in complete darkness because the power went out?  Even
if you were already awake, it’s hard to find your chosen protected spot (UNDER 
something, not next to it) and avoid any tripping hazards like toys on the floor or
even banging into stationary furniture if you can’t see anything.  This is where a
well-placed power failure back-up light in each room can make a huge difference to
your well-being as a quake is occurring.  I’m referring not to flashlights that live in
electrical outlets that are always charged when you need them, but specifically to lights that remain charged and function as dim nightlights as long as the outlet has power, and if the power goes out (or if you unplug the light), a bright emergency light goes on automatically and can last for hours.  The picture shows an older version based on an incandescent bulb; good for illustration but these aren’t available anymore because the LED versions last so much longer on a charge.

I make a point during my talks about having these back-up lights, but if you
actually go to a store or online to find some, you will find a bewildering assortment
of these things; and the sad fact is that I haven’t found any light with which I am
completely satisfied.  However, some are much better for the purpose than others,
and I’m going to report here what I’ve found out over the past few years of looking
for lights that I like.  Some are fine as general power failure back-up lights but are
impractical for earthquakes.  As I always mention, I have no financial ties to any of
these companies and don’t benefit from you choosing any particular brand over
another, but the choice of which to use could make a huge difference in those first
critical seconds of your response during a nighttime earthquake.

I did not consider any back-up light that was bulky, which many of them are.  The
reason is that it makes sense to have one in each room or part of the home in
which being suddenly shaking in pitch dark could be bad; that includes bathrooms.
A bulky light is not going to be practical in many electrical outlets.

While most of these lights provide a constant nightlight when plugged into a
powered outlet and a brighter constant emergency light when there is no power, at
least one product has an emergency light that flashes on and off.  I guess this is
supposed to conserve battery power, but I can’t imagine using this for earthquake
safety.  Picture yourself in a large earthquake, very bewildering and disorienting;
the last thing you need is to add a strobe effect as if you were in a 1970’s disco.
Those of us old enough to remember know how surreal the effect is; if you don’t,
go see American Hustle...  For earthquake emergency back-up, avoid the flashing

I ended up with three serious contenders, none perfect, and only one that I will
use.  All three have not only a nightlight and emergency back-up light, but also a
real flashlight from a different bulb.  However, don’t choose on the basis of the
flashlight; it’s most important that this functions as a good emergency light and
then you can find your favorite flashlight wherever it normally lives.  First the two

Etón American Red Cross “Blackout Buddy”:  While this has some admirable
features, I was ultimately disappointed with it.  I liked that it was small and flat,
plugs into one outlet without covering the other, and looks sleek enough to not
detract from your décor, with white constant lights.  There was a review on Amazon
about a potential electrical defect that could cause a fire hazard, and I contacted
the company to inquire.  As a result, they responded to the review on Amazon.
According to them, the electrical safety passes standard UL inspection standards,
and the product does indeed have the UL sticker.  Interestingly, I just checked
Amazon and the dialogue is continuing as recently as 2 weeks before this post.  It’s
also been pointed out that some of these products had a moldy smell.  The
manufacturer tells me that the smell was a real problem with one batch but that
has been fixed.

Unfortunately, there are more practical problems with the Blackout Buddy in my
opinion.  The nightlight, despite facing down, casts a very bright cone of light and
would be very distracting in a bedroom.  What’s worse, while it has the brightest
emergency light I’ve seen, which you might think would be a good thing, it
unfortunately faces upward with no diffuser and is blinding to look towards in an
otherwise dark room.  So imagine you are trying to get to a safe place during an
earthquake and being blinded in the process.  No thank you.  I would only use this
in a room in which nobody ever needed to sleep, and in a place where one was only
worried about power outages but not about needing to see during a large
earthquake without being blinded.

(An aside: watch what you put in your living room.  We had a back-up light in our
living room several years ago, which had a nightlight.  We had a guest sleep over,
and months later, I realized that the light had been switched to the complete “off”
position, presumably because it was interfering with the guest’s sleep.  Nothing
wrong with that, although it didn’t get turned back on, so we had actually been
without a back-up light all those months.)

Leviton “rechargeable power failure light”:  This one has a nightlight that is nice and soft, which is good, and leaves one outlet uncovered.  The problem is that the emergency light IS the nightlight; it’s no brighter.  I think it was not intended to cast emergency lighting into a dark room, but instead just to be a floor marker light to help you find your way down a hall.  That’s not good enough for a true emergency situation.  I also found it distracting that the nightlight is amber colored, very pretty but a bit disconcerting late at night in a dark room.

The winner hands down, at least for me, is the Greenlite “LED 3 in 1 Nitelite.”  This also leaves one outlet uncovered, and has a white nightlight that goes on during the dark, with a reasonably bright white emergency light that shines outwardly through a multifaceted lens that spreads the light nicely; no blinding effect while still casting a glow into a dark room.

However, this was not without its problems.  First of all, Amazon has reviews from hundreds of people, some of which love it and some hate it.  Those that hate it mostly complain about bad light sensors, in that the nightlight is supposed to be off when it senses light but some of these would be completely bright during the day, even if a flashlight was shining directly on the light sensor.  My original Greenlites didn’t have this problem, then I ordered more and some did.  My most recent one did not.  I suspect they had some bad batches and the bad reviews are from those who got the bad products.  If you get the Greenlite, be sure to test it for a couple of days before discarding the packaging and be prepared to return it if it is bad in exchange for a new one.

The only problem with all of the Greenlites that I’ve ordered over the last several
years is that the nightlights are too bright in a dark room if you want to sleep;
positively glaring.  However, there’s a work-around, which I think is silly to have to
do but it works nicely.  I may be the only one who’s figured this out because I’ve
never seen it mentioned anywhere.  The light sensor is taking the darkness a little
too seriously and it cranks up the light in a dark room, not nearly as brightly as
when the power cuts out, but enough to be too bright.  The solution is that there’s
a little red LED indicator light to the side of the light sensor that lights up whenever
the product is plugged in.  Believe it or not, by putting an object (your finger or
anything) in front of the red light but not covering it, about a centimeter away, red
light from the indicator bounces off of the object and onto the light sensor, and the
nightlight gets dimmer!  Try it, if the finger gets too close to the red light, the
nightlight doesn’t get dimmer, but as you move farther away from the red light, the
nightlight does get dimmer!

Therefore, I have put a piece of masking tape so that it loops away from the plastic
and then back to it, leaving the sensor completely uncovered and with the red light
just where the tape leaves the plastic so some of it reflects to the sensor.  It’s
easier than it sounds, just look at the photos.  Once in a while, if it is too bright for
me, I adjust the tape.  It doesn’t look fantastic, but if you are really concerned
about it, you can probably find a different kind of tape that will look better.

Feel free to comment on this post if you have any other lights that are worth trying.
I will bend my regular policy of not advertising products if your comment includes
the reasons why a specific product will fulfill the qualities I’ve described above.  I
should emphasize that some of these other lights might be perfectly good power
failure back-up lights in general; the goal here is to have one that doesn’t cause
problems during the confusion of an earthquake (like disorienting or blinding you).
And now hopefully you are no longer in the dark about not getting left in the dark.

[1/25/17 addendum: there is more useful information in the comments that follow]

>>back to blog


  1. Just to note: last night we had a power outage at about midnight for roughly 1 hour. Writing my own post about power failure back-up lights had prompted me at that time to fill in any gaps and to make sure that I had Greenlite lights strategically placed so that nowhere would be dangerously dark if the lights went out during a night-time earthquake. It was great, easily enough light glowing out into the rooms without any of them being blinding; it was easy to find my way around without bumping into anything or stepping on anything, and to get a somewhat more robust lantern out of the drawer.

  2. "Anytime, anywhere, anyplace n the abscene of light LiSor provides instant 360-luminescent visibility requiring no battery, diesel/gas and zero maintenance because indirect-light or sun energy is stored then emitted in the absence of light."

    The preceding comment was left that included a link. Even though it sounds like an ad, it's relevant and I'm posting it unedited but without the link. (Questionable links in comments sometimes create problems later when they are in posts linked to by other posts; they sometimes get flagged as spam and prevent the new post from being e-mailed to subscribers.)

  3. I have one Blackout Buddy in every room in the house and one by each exit so if the power goes out for any reason, to include fire, I can find the exits and have flashlights to use regardless of what room I'm in when the power goes out. You don't have to search for them.
    I was thinking to install big emergency lighting systemm in my house. I heard about shcneider and even looked on such components here, does anybody know about ir features. imean is it profitable to buy it. It is not cheap!

  4. I’m adding a comment to this article, some years later. It’s not my goal to become a perpetual light reviewer, but I did open the floor up in my article to those who have other lights that might be worthwhile. I recently was contacted by Ideal Security Inc., the makers of the Ideal Security Blackout Emergency Power Failure Light, to see what I thought about their products. They have two relevant products, one of which has two LED flood lights and the other has a panel of LEDs behind a faceted diffuser. I decided that it makes sense to at least mention the existence of these larger style emergency lights and evaluate how appropriate they might be specifically in the earthquake situation.

    Disclosure: the company offered to send me a free sample to review, and have sent me the 6-LED panel style. They understand that I will give an unbiased opinion and that the opinion could be good, bad, or mixed; they are fine with that. Now, please don’t everyone start lining up to send me samples to review; I just don’t have the bandwidth for that, but it’s worthwhile describing the pros and cons of this light here in the comment.

    First of all, it’s bright, REALLY bright... just this side of nuclear. This is both good and bad, as I’ll get to in a minute. It is not a small plug-in cassette; it is a free standing or wall-mounted device that is about 7” wide, 6” tall, and 2” deep, with a plug-in adapter to live in the wall outlet. It lists for about US$60, so its size and price make it not quite as feasible for something to be in every room of the home, but it’s so bright that it is only suitable for large spaces anyway. Because of character limits in these comment fields, the pros and cons are described in the next comment.

  5. (Continued from previous comment)


    This has a nice range of levels with a high setting that uses all 6 super-bright LEDs, a low setting that uses 3 of them, and a nightlight setting that uses only one of the LEDs and dims it as well. The nightlight can be set for always on or automatic when it is dark. It also has a nice breaker switch that you can press to interrupt the circuit and make sure that the light is working without physically unplugging it. The advantage of the high brightness is that it really bathes a large room in light. I have a large open space in my condo that includes a living room, dining room, and kitchen, about 25 feet in the long direction, and with this light at the far end of my kitchen facing outwards, I could easily read at the other end of that space with all of the regular lights out, even on the low setting. So if your goal is to have an entire large space bathed in light if the power cuts out, this light does that quite nicely. It also has a handle to make it easy to carry around as a super-bright portable lantern.


    Just from an emergency power failure light standpoint, its brightness limits the kind of room in which you can put it. The nightlight, if you use it, even on its dim setting, is very bright; enough so that I would not recommend putting it in a bedroom with the nightlight option on. Actually, there is a small blue LED indicator light to show the unit is plugged in and charging, and that tiny blue light itself is quite bright, a blinding point of light in an otherwise pitch-dark room. I think even the blue light is bright enough to interfere with sleep, although you could cover that indicator light with a partially or entirely opaque tape if that were a concern.

    More relevant to the purpose of this blog, the brightness of either emergency light setting creates problems in a nighttime earthquake similar to what I described for the Blackout Buddy in the main article, which is that it is so blazingly bright that it is actually hard to be in a dark room with the light; I found myself shielding my eyes when this was pointing out into the room, despite the multifaceted diffuser. One potential work-around is to mount it high up on the wall so that its brightness is directed over your normal lines of sight, although this makes it impractical to get it and carry it around afterward. You could opt to have it not on a wall facing out, but sitting somewhere else facing the wall, to cast a major glow without blinding. That isn’t necessarily going to be a convenient situation for you, and remember that if the light is sitting loosely on a surface and an earthquake moves or topples it, then once again it might be pointing right in your eyes as you try to move around in the already confusing and disorienting circumstance of a large quake (quake putty, anyone?).

    Conclusion: While I’m very impressed by the brightness and the design, excessive brightness in an emergency power failure light becomes a large liability if you are trying to deal with an emergency earthquake situation; a case where more is not necessarily better. My ideal situation during a large earthquake is to have emergency lighting that lets you see without blinding glare, and then you can use that moderate illumination to find a dedicated flashlight or lantern afterward. If you get a large bright light like this one, my suggestion would be to mount it high up on a wall to illuminate a room from above and plan to leave it there, rather than to carry it around afterward. Check out if you are interested in learning more.


COMMENT POLICY: Comments on blog posts can be very useful, raising issues and adding helpful information. However, some people attempt to post generic comments with embedded links to irrelevant websites. Due to this comment spam, all submitted comments will be verified by me first so there will probably be a delay before legitimate comments get posted. If your comment is taking a while to show up, it probably just means that I have not checked my e-mail yet. NOTE THAT COMMENTS THAT ARE ACTUALLY ADVERTISEMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED.