Power Outages: What You Need to Know Before You're Affected

Power Outages: What You Need to Know Before You’re Affected

by | Educational, Electricity, Energy Topics

In at least 14 different U.S. states, residents lost power during the winter storms that swept through the country in February 2021. The results were devastating, with over five million customers experiencing rolling blackouts that often lasted more than three days.   

The affected residents not only have memories of the tragedies that came as a result of this storm but they also have the looming knowledge that severe weather condition-related events have been occurring with increased frequency. The threat of repeat storms is genuine and scary.  

Knowing how to prepare for power outages and navigate them safely is critical knowledge that everyone should have. That’s why in this article, we’ll address everything you need to know about power outage safety. But first, we’ll discuss what causes power outages and where some of the most severe power outages have occurred.  

What Are Power Outages? 

Power outages are when the electricity flow from a utility provider to a user is interrupted. Simply put, a power outage is when there’s a loss of electric power. Outages can happen to an individual home, neighborhood, city, or entire states. But what causes power outages to happen? Well, many different causes can contribute to outages. Let’s take a look at the main suspects.  

What Are the Top Causes of Power Outages? 

You may notice on occasion that your lights dim a bit or start to flicker. When that happens, it’s considered a brownout, which is just a partial electrical disruption. Something like this may occur when energy use is high — like on hot summer days when masses of people use their AC units — and there’s more electricity demand than the power grid can supply. When you experience an actual power outage or a blackout, it’s often something other than system overload. Here are the top nine causes of power outages.  

1. Planned Maintenance 

Power Outages Planned Maintenancesource

When utility companies have to do maintenance on their equipment, it’s sometimes necessary to turn the power off temporarily. This protects the workers from the risk of electrical shock.   

These power outages typically only last one to three hours. In most cases, they’re pre-planned, meaning affected customers receive advance notice. 

2. Equipment Failure 

Power Outage Equipment Failure | US Power Gridsource

The U.S. power grid is an aging one. This, unfortunately, leads to equipment failure at times. Equipment failure can happen at any time. But it does tend to become increasingly more likely when those high-demand periods push the old power grid to its limits. 

3. Digging Accidents 

Power Outage Accident | Electric Yard Flagsource

Not all power lines hang from electric poles. Some get buried underground. Any time you decide to dig, you risk the chance of hitting one of these buried lines and causing a power outage.   

Homeowners and construction crews, or anyone else for that matter, should always call Dig Safe (811) before breaking ground, even if it’s just for a small project.   

This national notification center alerts local utility companies that have buried power lines in the area. They then send someone out to mark the locations of their lines. 

4. Automobile Accidents 

Power Outage per Automobile Accidentssource

Many electrical poles run along roads and highways. During car accidents, it’s not unusual for poles to get knocked over, which damages the power lines. This type of accident can lead to outages for the area that’s served by that particular power line. 

5. Wildlife 

Squirrel on a Power line | Not Electricutedsource

Have you ever wondered how birds and squirrels can go on power lines without being electrocuted? Since they aren’t grounded to anything else, the bodies of these animals alone don’t provide an easier route for the electricity to travel than the path it’s already taking. They simply aren’t good conductors of electricity, so the electricity ignores the animals on the wire.   

That is, however, until something like a squirrel decides to try chewing through the power lines. This fatal mistake can result in a fried squirrel alongside a quick surge of electrical power, which damages the power line and results in an outage. In some communities, utility companies install squirrel guards around their electric poles to discourage the squirrels from climbing. 

6. Trees 

Power Outage | By Tree Issuessource

Another frequent cause of power outages is tree branches that fall and land on power lines. But healthy trees that grow too close to a power line can also trigger outages when their branches and leaves touch the line.   

Thus, the law allows most utility companies to cut down or trim any trees that pose a risk to the power lines. Often they will do this at no cost to the property owner. 

7. Ice 

Power Outage Ice and Freezing Causesource

During winter storms, heavy ice can build up on power lines. This ice buildup causes the lines to break under the extreme weight the ice packs on. In the event of severe ice storms, it’s not unusual for multiple lines to break. This means it could take the utility company a full day or longer to have all of the broken lines repaired.  

How much ice buildup does it take to cause a power outage? An ice storm that results in 1/4 to 1/2 inch of accumulated ice is enough to cause damage and disruption. In fact, only a 1/2 inch of ice accumulation can add a whopping 500 pounds of weight to the power line. 

8. Lightning 

Power Outage | Lightning Reason Issues Accidentsource

Lightning bolts are attracted to tall things, and utility poles are no exception. When lightning strikes utility poles, it damages the equipment they hold, including fuses, relays, transformers, and power lines. Fortunately, if the damage is not overly extensive, it may only take a few hours to fix. 

9. Flooding 

Power Outage per Flooding | Underground Watersource

Floods can affect underground electrical equipment as well as above-ground electrical substations. These substations are where your electricity distributes from and are generally located on higher ground far from flood plains, but that’s not always the case.Sometimes floods can become so bad that these substations are at risk of submersion. When that happens, utility companies must turn off the power so their equipment isn’t damaged  

Unfortunately, if that substation electricity powers your home, you’ll be temporarily cut off until it’s safe for power restoration. The result is a power outage. But look on the bright side: You’ll end up getting your service turned back on a lot sooner than if the substation equipment were actually damaged. 

What Is the Number One Cause of Power Outages in the US?  

Power Outage Extreme Weather Occurences | Field Fire Imagesource

Out of all the different things that can cause outages, what’s the leading culprit of power outages across the United States? The answer is extreme weather conditions caused by climate change  

Everything from wildfires caused by extreme heat to winter storms, tropical storms, tornadoes, heavy rains, and more are increasing in both intensity and frequency throughout the nation. The escalation in these violent weather conditions has resulted in weather becoming the leading cause of power outages. In fact, weather accounts for around 80% of all outages that occur.  

Why Are Power Outages Increasing? 

Threatening weather is nothing new. However, climate change has caused a rise in how frequently we’re seeing these storms. That frequency, matched with the heightened endurance and severity of these extreme weather conditions, has been taxing on the energy sector and has effectively caused more power outages. 

What Can We Do to Combat Extreme Weather Conditions Caused by Climate Change? 

The energy sector is undergoing significant market, technology, and policy-driven changes. One of the main improvements is the widespread push to make natural gas and renewable resources the leading energy sources. Efforts are also in motion to improve efficiency by adapting areas such as the electrical grid and the operation and design of infrastructure. These actions should bring enhanced energy security, resilience, and reliability.  

It’s not just up to the energy sector, however. Everyone plays an essential role in the fight against climate change. As individuals, we need to do our share by practicing energy conservation. When we do this, we’ll cut back on our greenhouse gas emissions, which can help reverse the effects of climate change. We can also end up saving on our utility bills. It’s a double-win.  

Where Are Power Outages Most Common?  

Power Outages | Image of Fallen Powerlinessource

In 2020, utility customers in the United States experienced a whopping 1.33 billion outage hours. That was up 73% from 2019 but down by 150 million from 2018. So what state do these power outages most commonly occur in? Well, Louisiana claimed 181 million power outage hours in 2020, making them the state with the most outages. Still, it’s pretty safe to say that no one is immune from this experience.   

Let’s take a look at where some of the most recent severe events took place. 

1. February 2021: Winter Storms 

These unexpected winter storms impacted Texas residents the most and affected residents in Oklahoma, Kansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and New Mexico. More than 4 million homes lost power as a result.  

2. August 2020: Hurricane Isaias 

Although Columbia and NYC energy company ConEd had published a grid vulnerability report back in December 2019, they weren’t yet prepared for what Hurricane Isaias had in store for them. New York City (NYC) was especially vulnerable as they were also suffering heavily from the coronavirus pandemic at this time.   

Isaias resulted in the second-largest outage in almost 200 years for Con Edison. Power restoration took an estimated five days, leaving Governor Andrew Cuomo asking questions about the delay. New Jersey, Connecticut, and other areas of New York were also affected. In the end, 3.8 million homes experienced power outages.  

3. August 2020: Derecho Event 

The East Coast wasn’t the only region to take a hit in August 2020. A somewhat rare weather condition called a derecho, which is a line of powerful thunderstorms alongside a hurricane-speed windstorm, trampled the Midwestern state of Iowa. Also affected by this storm were residents in Illinois, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky, leaving over one million homes without power. 

4. 2020: Strong Winds, Dry Conditions, and Wildfires 

Five of California’s worst wildfires occurred in 2020. Winds perhaps some of the strongest seen in the region in as many as 20 years can topple trees and equipment, including power lines. This likely caused some of California’s massive wildfires. When conditions are arid and windy, California energy companies like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) must consider doing safety shut-offs to cut the risk of sparking wildfires. Each time a safety shutoff happens, over one million residents can end up experiencing multi-day power outages. 

Power Outage Safety 

Occasionally, power outages are pre-planned and only last a short time. But most frequently, they are unexpected, and it’s best not to be caught off-guard. Although many power outages only last a few minutes, or even just seconds, some outages last substantially longer, leading to what could potentially be a hazardous situation.   

With such violent weather conditions now causing most of these outages, it’s even more vital to prepare adequately. Here’s what you need to know to prepare for a power outage. 

Power Outage Advanced Preparations  

Power Outage Preparation Supplies photosource

If you wait until you’re stuck in a blackout to prepare, it’ll be too late. Most of us regularly depend on our cell phones and other electronics. It’s vital to keep in mind that while your cell phone may still work during a power outage, there’s no guarantee that the calls will go through. Plus, you won’t be able to charge it once the battery dies. That’s just one of several things many people tend to overlook.   

Take these steps in advance to ensure you’re ready for a power outage should one occur:  

  • Have a plan for how and when you’ll evacuate. Keep a paper copy of your emergency phone numbers and addresses. Don’t forget to include the phone number of your local utility company.  
  • Maintain a halfway full gas tank in case you need to drive while gas stations are closed. 
  • Sign up for text alerts and other alert systems through your utility company, school, workplace, or local government. 
  • Use surge protectors for all of your electronic devices. 
  • Purchase non-electrical devices, like a battery or crank-powered flashlight, lanterns, handheld fans, and radios. NOAA Weather Radios keep you connected to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s 24-hour national weather service.  
  • Keep extra batteries and portable chargers on-hand and ready to go for cell phones, computers, lighting, medical devices, garage doors, locks, cooking appliances, and other daily essentials. 
  • Consider purchasing a generator, outdoor stove, or propane heater, but never use these items or charcoal grills indoors or near windows. 
  • Choose easy-to-locate places around your home to store flashlights, lanterns, or other non-electrical lights in case it’s dark when the lights go out. 
  • Store two weeks’ worth of non-perishable food, no-cook meals, and water 
  • Keep coolers and ice on hand so you can extend food refrigeration. Place a thermometer in the fridge, freezer, or cooler to monitor food temperatures. 
  • Insulate your home to help control the climate inside during extreme weather conditions. 
  • Install combination carbon monoxide and smoke alarms on each floor. Install additional smoke detectors in all sleeping areas as well as outside of bedroom doors. All alarms should be tested monthly and should have battery backups. 

How to Report, Find, and Check Power Outages in Your Area?

Your first resource should be your local power company. They can provide you with up-to-date power outage reports, including estimated time of restoration, outage status, and emergency information. Most electric companies have a hotline, social media account, outage map, or website. Just Energy customers that are currently experiencing an outage can report their power outage here. 

What to Do During a Power Outage?

Prepping for Power Failure Outagesource

Keep tabs on all local weather reports and notifications from your utility company. If you don’t have a television or radio that works, use your cell phone to check apps or social media. Take these extra steps to ensure safety during a power outage:  

  • Contact your family or friends to let them know if you’re OK. If the phone lines are down, try using social media to send a message. 
  • Keep your freezer and refrigerator closed to preserve their cool temperatures. If unopened, your refrigerator should keep food cold for around four hours. A full, unopened freezer can maintain its temperature for approximately 48 hours, or if it’s half-empty closer to 24 hours. Use coolers with ice if you feel it’s necessary. When you get hungry, eat the perishable foods first. Check your food thermometer before eating anything perishable. Don’t eat anything that has reached 40 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. 
  • Turn all light switches off and unplug all appliances and electronics. This will help avoid potential power overloads and save your devices from power surge damage once the power returns. If you’d like, you can keep one small light switch turned on to signal when the power restoration occurs.  
  • Only turn off utilities if local officials ask you to or if you suspect damage since a qualified professional will be required to turn your gas line on. If your circuit breaker trips, have an electrician in for an inspection before turning it back on. 
  • Decide whether it’s safer to stay or go:  
  1. From inside, look around your home and out the windows to see if you notice anything dangerous. (This could be things like fire, sparks, down power lines, broken glass, water damage, or flooding). If you see anything dangerous, find your safest evacuation route and contact your local utility or emergency department immediately. 
  2. Determine if you have enough food and water stored. Storms can contaminate your home’s water supply, so only use bottled or boiled water for drinking, washing, and bathing.  
  3. Do you have any medical devices that require power? Do you have a full supply of any medications and supplies you might need?  
  4. Is your home at a comfortable temperature? Your community may provide warming or cooling centers that have power charging stations. 

Leaving Your Home Safely During a Power Outage

Power Outage Outdoor Options | Leaving Home | Yard imagesource

It’s almost always safer to stay put during a power outage, but occasionally that’s not the case. If you must leave your house during a power outage or right after power restoration, first follow these vital steps for safety:  

  • Look outside again to make sure there are no visible dangers. 
  • Keep at least 35 feet between you and fallen power lines or anything they may be touching. If you see down power lines, call 911 immediately to report them.  
  • Never enter flooded areas or use electronics that were potentially submerged. You risk receiving an electric shock, which can be fatal.  
  • Bring copies of all your documents. This includes birth certificates, passports, insurance policies, proof of address, deed/lease to your home, and medical information.  
  • Bring emergency contact information, cash, maps, food, water, medications, first-aid kit, change of clothes, flashlight, cell phone, and anything else you may need to survive in the event you get stranded. 

It’s Time For You to Prepare 

What to Do During a Power Outage Electric outlet | Shorting Outsource

Power companies do everything they can to get you back up and running as fast as possible. Of course, restoring power often takes a great deal of work. The best thing you can do if you’re affected by a power outage is to make sure you’re prepared, keep calm, and stay in touch with your local utility provider. If you’re looking for more helpful tips, don’t miss our guide on hurricane recovery and safety. 

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