Power Outages: Everything You Need to Know!

what causes the power to go out

While the discovery of electricity may have been considered a technological feat in the olden days, we now take the power that runs most everything in our homes for granted. That is, until a power outage occurs. Because electricity has become an integral component of everyday life, the world seems to stop turning when it becomes unavailable. 

However, with the changing climate, power outages have become more common than before. The electric grid may be designed to withstand the elements, but even durable modern structures are sometimes no match for the forces of nature. Moreover, human errors can cause the system to shut down.  

Preparing for when power outages occur can help you ride out the event easily. In some instances, it can even spell the difference between life and death.  

What are Power Outages

A power outage is when the electrical power supply, particularly that which comes from the power grid, suddenly becomes unavailable. Power outages may occur for various reasons, but they have one thing in common; they affect a whole region or area, not just a single home.  

They often last for a few seconds or minutes, but sometimes, can last for days, even weeks. The latter is especially true if the electrical grid sustained significant damages, leading to delays before the utility companies can restore power. 

Common Causes of Power Outages

Different reasons why power outages occur exist. They may stem from downed power lines, impairments in the power system, or damages to the electrical equipment that delivers electricity to homes and businesses. 

The following are the more common causes of power outages. 

Natural Disasters

No structure is strong enough to endure the wrath of nature. So when disasters occur, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and wildfires, they can wreak havoc on electricity generation and transmission facilities. When the electrical system fails, it can leave an entire city without electricity. 

Let’s look at the natural events that are often the reasons behind many power outages. 

Storms

Storms are often one of the leading causes of power cuts. The strong winds and heavy rains associated with this weather event can break power lines or topple power poles. Severe weather can also damage utility poles and transmission lines, leading to a power blackout.  

Strong Winds

High winds can knock down electricity poles and cut power lines. They can also cause electricity lines to swing together, leading to a short circuit that disrupts power service. Moreover, flying debris due to intense winds can knock out transformers and other electrical equipment. 

Earthquakes

Earthquakes can damage power generation equipment, such as generators and transformers. The violent ground shaking can also topple power lines and poles. In addition, soil liquefaction can have devastating effects on electrical infrastructures. 

Lightning

Some of the ways lightning causes power outages are by zapping a transformer or frying power lines. In fact, a study shows that 3 percent of the power cuts caused by severe weather happen this way. Because of their height, utility poles are susceptible to lightning strikes. When lightning strikes, it can increase the electrical voltage in the power line and cause the electrical system to shut down to prevent a short circuit and other damage.  

Flooding

Flooding from heavy rains and melting snow causes power outages because of its impact on the electrical system infrastructure. Power stations located on lower grounds are often affected by floods, and when this happens, these stations turn off power to prevent further damage to the equipment. 

Falling Trees

Trees falling on power lines is another common cause of power outages and power fluctuations or surges, even during good weather. More so during inclement weather, when strong winds can blow tree debris into the lines causing a sudden loss of power. Trees that grow beneath a utility pole can also cause a power outage when their branches or limbs make contact with the lines causing a short circuit.

Animals

Small animals like squirrels and birds seeking new homes or nesting places can inadvertently cause a blackout. That’s because these animals sometimes chew through power lines or knock down other equipment as they forage for food. Also, they can short-circuit connections when they build their nests. A utility company can prevent this by installing critter guards that prevent these animals from climbing the poles. 

Vehicles

Cars and other vehicles can skid out of control and ram into a power pole, knocking it down and causing a power failure in the locality. A momentary lapse in attention or a patch of slippery road is sometimes all it takes for this to happen. Fortunately, this common cause of power outages usually affects only a small area, and electricity service is often restored within a few hours.  

Construction Work

Carelessness or human error can lead to a power outage. Construction crews can accidentally dig up and disturb underground cables, disrupting the area’s electricity service. The time frame for restoring power depends on the damage the lines sustain.

Equipment Failure

We have an aging power grid. As such, equipment that brings electricity to consumers can experience breakdowns due to wear and tear. For example, insulators can corrode, wires can snap, and insulation on cables can crack. When any of the components fail, the grid can stop working properly, leading to a power cut. 

High Energy Demand

Too many people drawing electricity in one area at a given time can lead to instability in the system. For example, extreme heat can drive many people to crank up their air conditioning units during heat waves. Excessive demand can overload the grid resulting in outages. 

Human Action

Construction crews aren’t the only ones whose actions can cause outages. Ordinary people doing simple yard work can accidentally damage electric lines and cables. More sinister acts leading to power failures include vandalism and intentional destruction of facilities. Thieves sometimes steal wires and other electrical components that contain copper, selling them as scraps.  

Planned Power Outages

Sometimes a power outage isn’t due to any random event but is caused by routine maintenance work by power suppliers. While performing maintenance, the electricity companies turn off the power to protect their personnel from electric shocks. How often planned outages occur depends on the age and configuration of the electric system. The good thing about planned outages is that power companies often inform you when the power cut will occur and when they will restore power.  

Cyberattacks

This is not a common reason for power outages in the country, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Enemies of the country or sophisticated hackers who have an ax to grind have the capability to shut down the electric grid. Will they succeed? That’s the million-dollar question. Electricity suppliers have strict security measures in place designed to prevent this type of attack. 

Types of Power Outages

When the power goes out, you probably don’t give a whit about what type of outage occurs. Some don’t even know outages come in different types. The result seems the same, after all. You lose power. Still, knowing what kind of failure you’re experiencing will sometimes give you an idea regarding its duration. 

Let’s dig into the various types of outages.

Blackout

A blackout refers to a complete loss of electric power in an area. The lack of power typically caused by extreme weather conditions and unstable grids often falls under this category. It’s the most severe form of an outage as it usually affects a large number of people and disrupts the service in a large area. Blackouts typically arise from large-scale damage to electrical generation facilities. As such, they’re difficult to fix and may last for days or even weeks. 

Brownout

When the voltage sags, or there’s a dip in the overall electrical power supply, a brownout usually occurs. The term comes from the dimming of lights resulting from the drop in voltage. The power doesn’t completely go out during a brownout. However, it can cause poor equipment performance. As such, hair dryers and electric ovens may not work properly due to the lowered voltage. 

Permanent Fault

A sudden loss of power brought on by a power line fault is referred to as a permanent fault. This outage usually affects a limited area because it only causes line trips a few distances down the supply line from where the line fault occurred. It’s also relatively easy to fix. Power is automatically restored once the line fault gets repaired. 

Rolling Blackouts 

Unlike the other types of outages that occur because of unforeseen events, rolling blackouts are planned power cuts. They are typically implemented in areas with unstable grids or infrastructure that can’t accommodate the demand from electric consumers. Because they’re planned outages, the electricity companies usually know the power’s restoration time.  

Effects of Power Outages

Loss of power poses a significant challenge in our world which relies heavily on electricity to function smoothly. Because we’ve gotten used to having electric power, we flounder when it fails. 

While the first thing we think of when we hear the words power outages is no lights, much more than the simple lack of illumination is involved when a power failure occurs. Simply put, it’s not just about having no lights but a slew of challenges we must deal with until the power returns. These include the following. 

  • No heating or air conditioning: The lack of illumination may be inconvenient but having no means to control the temperature of your living space can pose some risks. What those risks depend on the time of the year. During the summer, when heat waves can occur, the scorching weather can cause heat strokes. Outages in the winter months can lead to freezing pipes, which may eventually burst. You’ll also need to rely on other sources of heat. 
  • Interruption in the operation of life-sustaining medical devices: People with medical conditions requiring equipment like C-PAP machines, oxygen pumps, and other devices are at risk when the power goes out. Without electricity, the tools they need will stop working. 
  • No cell phone service: Larger blackouts sometimes lead to loss of cell phone signal because cell towers cease operating, leaving people unable to use their cell phones to communicate.  
  • Food spoilage: Without electricity, your refrigerator won’t be able to keep your food cold. If the outage lasts for days, it could lead to food spoilage
  • Revenue loss for businesses: Lack of power often hinders a business from delivering a product or performing a service. This could lead to significant revenue loss, especially if the outage lasts long.   

How to Report Power Outages?

Reporting power outages is pretty straightforward. You’ll just have to find the contact number of your local Transmission and Distribution Service Provider (TDSP) and reach out to them. Most TDSPs provide various means how to contact them. Using a working phone is probably the best way to reach them during an outage. 

How to Check Power Outages in Your Area?

Search for your address on the US outage map to check the outage status and get the estimated restoration time. Click on the circular icon to display the outage information screen, which provides details regarding power outages in your area. Included in the details are the estimated restoration time when the outage was reported, and the progress of the restoration effort. 

Getting a Backup Power Source

As power cuts become more frequent due to the changing climate, aging grid, and other factors, you’ll need to ensure your household and business won’t be disrupted when they occur. You see, even one hour of downtime can lead to substantial revenue losses. It can also throw your schedule into disarray and may even cause you to miss important deadlines or lose crucial data on your digital systems. So to ensure that everything runs smoothly, you can consider getting a backup power source, such as a generator. 

Factors to Consider Before Buying a Generator

Whether your area experiences occasional blackouts or those pesky power cuts occur regularly, a generator can be a valuable tool to keep your household or business running efficiently. But before you buy just any old generator on the market, you should look at some factors, so you’re sure to get the kind that suits your needs.  

Size

Size is an essential aspect of choosing your generator. This equipment comes in various sizes, so it’s easy to make the mistake of purchasing one that won’t meet your power needs. In general, the bigger the generator, the higher the power load it can handle. 

Fuel Type

Both diesel and gasoline-powered generators are equipped to handle the various load requirements. Each fuel type has its pros and cons, so ultimately, your choice will depend on personal preference, budget, and fuel availability.  

Cost

If you want the convenience of completely powering your home during a blackout, a whole-house generator is your best bet. However, be prepared to shell out a substantial amount as this type doesn’t come cheap. A diesel-powered model is typically less expensive than one that relies on natural gas. However, natural gas is a clean-burning fuel. 

FAQs

What is the World’s Longest Power Outage?

When it comes to the longest blackout in the world, the one that occurred in Auckland, New Zealand, stands out. In 1988, two of the four major power cables that supplied electricity to the city failed due to extremely hot and dry conditions. The other two cables stopped working due to the failure of the other power lines. The power cut lasted 5 weeks, and it took almost 66 days to fully restore the electricity service to the city. 

Can a Breaker Trip without Flipping?

Circuit breakers are designed to trip. That’s the main point of getting this safety device. Their purpose is to protect your appliances from faulty currents or wiring. They do so by tripping or severing the connection when they sense an overload. However, no equipment is fool-proof, so there’s always a chance that a breaker can trip without flipping. Often, it means the breaker needs replacing, and you must do so as soon as possible. A faulty breaker will let your electrical system operate at a much higher capacity, thus increasing the risks of fires and other electrical issues.     

Can I Take a Shower if the Power is Out?

The answer depends on what type of water heater you have or if your home relies on electric pumps to deliver the water where you need it. If you have a tankless water heater, you can still take a shower, but you won’t have hot water. Tankless water heaters don’t have reservoirs and require electricity to heat the water. So no electricity, no hot shower. You’re in luck if your home is equipped with a water heater with a tank and there’s water in the tank. You can shower but do it fast before the water cools off. Does your home need a pump to bring the water to your bathroom? If it does, sorry, you won’t have water for showering, as electric pumps require electricity to operate.

How Often Do Power Surges Happen?

Power surges occur with surprising frequency. Most of these last for only a fraction of a second, and some are small voltage fluctuations you don’t notice. They also don’t exceed the voltage threshold of your household appliances. It’s when there’s a significant jump in voltage that the risk of damage to your appliances increases. They commonly occur during hot summer days when people turn on their AC units simultaneously. 

Conclusion

Power outages happen due to various reasons. The kind of power loss your area experiences often determines how long it will last and whether the electric company can tell when you’ll get your service back. Because having electricity is critical to your home and business, you’ll need to prepare for the possibility of power cuts.  

Getting an alternative power source, such as a generator, can lessen the inconvenience the loss of power brings. Some homeowners opt to install solar panels with storage capabilities, so they’ll still have electricity in the event of a blackout. 

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