Few things in life frustrate you as much as power failures. Trying to watch your favorite ball game or movie, and the power goes out, causes instant rage. You are on a zoom call with a client, and boom, everything is off. You slam the desk and shout, WHY DOES MY POWER KEEP GOING OUT!
Weather is the top cause of power outages every year. Other causes include human error, equipment failure, supply shortages, overloaded circuits, and animals. Electric utility suppliers do routine maintenance and sometimes implement rolling blackouts to protect the grid from total collapse.
Your power goes out because of the following factors:
- The weather and natural disasters
- Utility provider equipment failures
- Scheduled repair and maintenance
- Human errors like accidents, power shortages, and overloading
- Short circuits and ground faults
Power outages happen when the power supply gets disrupted, and the end-user (consumer) finds themselves in the dark. Supply shortages, breakage, and animals will be some of the topics addressed in this article, and we will even teach you how to calculate the amount of electricity your hairdryer consumes.
Is Weather the Leading Cause Of Power Outages?
Natural disasters caused by inclement weather are the leading cause of power outages every year. It does not matter how you view America either as a region or by state; one thing is clear at some point, the weather has a fundamental impact on the electrical supply grid.
Other factors that can cause power outages or failures are equipment failures, scheduled maintenance, animals, or even faults caused by humans.
Let’s look at the impact each of the above-mentioned has on the grid.
Nature’s Phenomenons And Their Impact
This section will be looking at the top four causes of power outages brought on by nature.
- Hurricanes and Tropical Storms: It seems every year the storms are getting worse, and many attribute it to climate change. These storms primarily impact the southern parts of the Atlantic, and Hurricanes like Dorian, Irma, Florence, Harvey, and many others leave millions in the dark for days.
- Earthquakes: Earthquakes are another devastating natural disaster that affects the power grid by causing damage to heavy equipment like transformers and other insulation items. Power outages can last anything from hours to days and can even take months to repair all the damage done.
- Tornadoes: Many tornadoes affect smaller sections of a specific region or state, and intense wind and flash floods cause a tremendous amount of power outages every year. According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NOAA), there are more than 1200 tornadoes every year.
- Animals: Snakes, birds, and sometimes raccoons are responsible for power outages every year, but none of them come close to the most hated animal in the energy sector: the Squirrel.
Squirrels are responsible for 10-20% of all power disruptions.
How Equipment Failures Cause Power Outages?
If you ever visit a power plant or power station, you will soon realize that thousands of individual parts exist that can malfunction. Some parts have just aged too much, or wear and tear weaken it to the point of failure.
Unintentional power outages caused by parts malfunctioning, breaking, or disintegrating are a constant concern. Regular maintenance prevents most of these outages.
Scheduled Repairs And Maintenance
Most of the time, your utility supplier will inform you when they do scheduled repairs or maintenance. They try to do it in times that will have the most negligible impact on the consumer, but it is still unpleasant to have a blackout for hours while they work.
This category falls under intentional power outages.
Power Outages Caused By Human Error
Humans frequently cause power outages through automobile accidents when hitting a power line. Sometimes it may be something as innocent as cutting down a tree causing it to fall unto the power line, or homeowners and building contractors using excavation machines and accidentally pulling up power cables.
We only included accidents causing power disruption to the outside distribution system in this category. We will later discuss power outages caused by humans inside the home or business.
Is The Power Failure Before The Service Point Or After It?
In the following sections, we’ll discuss two parts to power outages. The first part will deal with power outages outside the home and business before reaching the power meter. The second part will be about power outages caused by inside factors behind the power meter.
Many utilities have the service point as the cut-off point for their accountability, and you as the owner are responsible for everything after that point.
Part 1 – Power Failures Before The Service Point
Power plants generate all the electricity we use every day. It then passes through the transmission equipment (step-up transformers), which feeds the power lines to substations located in neighborhoods across the united states.
When the power supply arrives at the substation, the connected distribution system(step down- transformers) relays the electricity to the consumer. If any part of these systems fails, you have a power outage.
The utility supplier is accountable for all faults, outages, and repairs to the grid system up to the service point at your home or business.
Power Plants In America
The United States generates a lot of energy each year. Consumers require more electricity as their desire for more devices and electronics grows, and here’s how many power plants we need to meet this demand.
- 1700 natural gas power stations, which generate approximately 37% of the country’s energy
- 400 coal power plants generate 30% of the nation’s electricity supply
- 61 nuclear power reactors produce almost 20% of energy every year
- More than 1400 hydroelectric power units, which contribute about 7% of the nation’s energy supply
- Over 1000 wind-powered electric power plants contribute 6% to the national power supply
- More than 1700 solar power electric power plants in the United States, creating 6% of the total energy used in America
- 1000 oil-powered electric power plants yield around 1% of the total energy supplied to the grid
Even with so many power plants, there is still one other factor that causes blackouts: Supply Shortages. Some utility suppliers may implement sporadic rolling blackouts instead of failing the whole grid. High-population density areas are more prone to power outages than rural areas.
When there are heatwaves or freezing temperatures, electricity demand increases and causes supply shortages.
Power Transferred From The Power Station
Transmission failure happens when step-up transformers fail or power lines break down or get damaged so no power can reach the distribution system. These failures are rare and only occur because of severe weather and other natural disasters.
The transmission system is a higher priority than distribution systems since they connect states and countries through power lines.
Maintenance and repairs are performed continuously according to dependability requirements and standards to prevent accidental disturbances on the power grid. When step-down transformers fail, distribution system failures occur, and no power supply can reach the end customer.
The end customer can either be industrial, commercial, or residential.
What Is Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS)?
Public safety power shutoffs occur when extreme weather is in a specific area. Severe stormy weather, where floods and wind may cause distribution system damage, or dry thunderstorms that may trigger wildfires, are two examples of PSPS being used to keep communities safe.
Many neighborhoods connect to a different distribution grid system. Therefore, you may experience a power outage while your neighbor across the street may not be affected by the PSPS. Your county may have an official alert and warning system in place to help you prepare for power outages ahead of time.
Be sure to sign-up for their service if you are perennially in affected areas.
What Is A Power Surge?
A sudden spike in voltage constitutes a power surge that travels through the distribution system and into your home or business. When reestablishing the electricity after an outage, power surges can occur.
Surge protectors are widely available to protect your appliances from damage caused by power surges.
When lightning strikes a power line, it can generate a power surge that can harm your devices.
Part 2 – Power Failures After The Service Point
This part will focus on power outages that occur after the service point at your house or business. As mentioned in part 1, the power utility’s accountability ends when the electric supply reaches the service point.
If there is a power outage, but it is not on the utility provider side, it is on the owner’s side of the meter, and you will need to find the cause for the outage.
Three common issues cause power outages in a customer’s home or office, an overloaded circuit, a short circuit, and a ground fault.
Your First Experience Causing A Power Outage
I believe everyone has had the unfortunate experience when you switch on a hairdryer or vacuum cleaner, and the power suddenly goes out. You franticly toggle the on/off button with no success. The next logical step you follow is to check whether the connection to the power socket is secure.
You remove it from the socket, resocket it, and toggle the switch again. Nothing happens, and you wiggle the cable, still nothing. You walk over to the light switch on the wall, toggle it, and there is light.
Now you are confused and think the device broke. The first time something like this happens to you, you find yourself stunned. You might even take the hairdryer to the kitchen and plug it into one of those sockets, flip the switch, and it works.
You go back to your room, and then it doesn’t work again. When telling someone about it, they ask you to check the circuit breaker or fuse, which is when you learn about overloaded circuits for the first time.
What is an overloaded circuit?
An overloaded circuit happens when the power required from the devices connected to the circuit exceeds the limit of the breaker or fuse. In practice, this means if you plug too many power-hungry devices into a socket, the fuse or circuit breaker disrupts the flow of electricity.
Breakers are a preventative measure used to prevent electrical fires caused by overheating wires that melt, and the arc between exposed wires can spark a fire. Any overloaded circuit has a few warning signs you should be aware of:
- Hearing a buzzing sound when walking past the electrical panel or wall socket
- When you power on a device and the Lights dim
- A burnt odor from electrical wires or sockets
- Experiencing mild shocks or tingling when operating appliances or other electrical devices
- Warm sockets or extension cords
- Circuit breakers frequently tripping
Different sections make up electrical circuits in a home or business, and these circuits connect to a specific circuit breaker found in the breaker panel. Every circuit breaker has a load capacity rating that determines how much electrical current can flow through a particular area in the house or business.
When you exceed this limit, the breaker disrupts the flow, and a reset is required to allow current through again.
How To Calculate The Maximum Current Allowed?
Circuit breakers are limited to the maximum amperage allowed to flow through a particular circuit. When you look into a breaker panel, the circuit breakers have 15, 20, 35, or 50 printed onto each breaker.
To determine how many electrical devices you can fit on a specific circuit, you can use the following formula: Amps = Watts/Volts (amperage equals wattage divided by the volts).
You can check your electrical appliance or device and see how much Watts or Amps it consumes. The label found on the side or back of the device will give you all the information you need, or you can Google the model number and get the correct specifications.
Most homes and businesses have a 120V power supply, but some may even have 240V, so you will need to test it using a multimeter or ask an electrician to check for you.
The most common hairdryers in America is 1,875 watts. If your home has a 120 Volt power supply, you have all you need to calculate the amperage. 1875 watts / 120 volts = 15.6 amps. If you have a 20 amp circuit breaker and the hairdryer is the only appliance connected to the circuit at this moment, you will not experience an outage.
Now you know how to calculate the amperage of all devices on a circuit.
What causes a short circuit?
A short circuit is when the current flows where it is not supposed to; the live wire touches the neutral wire. The insulation on the live wire and the neutral wire prevents this from happening most of the time. A few examples of how short circuits can happen:
- Because liquids conduct electricity, any spill, rain, or flood can cause a short circuit
- A loose connection in the electrical socket
- You drill a hole into a power cable behind the wall when decorating your house.
- Pests like rats, mice, squirrels, and other vermin chew on electrical wires and create a short circuit.
- When an electric cable overheats(overloaded circuit), the power insulation melt, causing wires to connect.
The way to deal with this short circuit is to have a breaker, as we explained in the previous sections, that will discontinue the power and prevent fires or other damage. It is better to seek professional help to deal with short circuits in your home or business in severe cases.
What Is The Distinction Between A Short Circuit And A Ground Fault?
In a short circuit like mentioned above, when the live wire and the neutral wire touch, this causes the circuit breaker to trip. A ground fault is when the ground wire touches the livewire and causes the circuit breaker to trip.
The ground wire in a home protects the individual from receiving an electric shock. Another name for the ground wire is the earth wire.