Electricity in the mountains isn't as clean or reliable as it is in town. The lines between the power generation stations and our area are long and subject to many kinds of failure:
- Aging transmission equipment fails when it wears out.
- Vehicle accidents knock out power poles and lines.
- Trees fall or drop limbs which takes out power, particularly during winter wind and rain storms.
- Wildland fires can take down power poles and lines - and fires are often started by power lines that come down as a result of any of the above issues.
- Trees and limbs can also cause brown outs, where the voltage on the lines drops. These are particularly hard on mechanical systems like motors, compressors, and so on.
- Power surges happen regularly as well, and these can damage sensitive electronic equipment.
The severity of these issues varies with your location, time of year, and other factors, and the actions needed to mitigate power problems will vary as a result of all of those things plus your personal needs and temperament. (Some people view a power outage as going camping in their homes. Others see it as a reason to go to town until the problem is fixed.)
For some, a power outage - even a long one - is no big deal. Life goes on, and when the power comes back on things get back to normal. For others, though, a power outage can be a major - even life threatening - issue. In the 1990's there were power outages for large portions of the mountains that lasted days. That has improved, and most areas don't experience outages of that duration anymore. There will be pockets - generally small numbers of homes well down some feeder line - where that can still happen, but average outage durations have come down substantially since then, even during our winter storms.
Still, outages can be a major issue. Those who need more reliable power will have to consider purchasing a generator of some kind. How big a generator you need will vary with how big a load you want to be able to run while the power is down. Generators can run on at least three different fuels: gas, diesel, or propane. Gas generators are usually smaller and relatively inexpensive. Diesel generators are usually larger and most often fixed to the ground, not portable. Propane generators can vary, but the big, whole house generators often use propane. Gas and diesel generators need to be started regularly to keep them from fouling and clogging. Propane generators don't clog in that way.
Generators need to be used properly. You should never feed power back into the power grid with your generator. That can kill power line workers trying to fix downed lines and damage electrical equipment in other people's homes. Large generators that can drive most or all of a home should be connected to your house with a transfer switch. That switch may be automatic or manual, but it will disconnect PG&E's lines completely before applying power from your generator to supply your home. Small generators can be used with suitable extension cords to power a few devices, but should not be plugged directly into the house wiring unless you have a transfer switch in place to make it possible.
Generators should NEVER be used indoors, not even in a garage. They emit carbon monoxide - an odorless gas - that can kill, and they can also start fires.
If you have questions about generators, contact a licensed electrician to discuss them and your options.
Note that many automatic transfer switches that work with whole house generators monitor power lines and provide brown out and surge protection.
As discussed above, brown outs are low voltage conditions. Old style incandescent light bulbs go dim during brownouts, giving them the name. These events are common in the mountains, particularly during wind and rain storms. Trees lean into power lines without breaking them, and the voltage drops. Depending on the conditions and the kind of electric service in your home, it is possible to have a brownout affect some circuits and not others. (This happens when only one of the two hot lines coming to your home is impacted.)
During a brown out, motors cannot get enough power to start, and those that were already running get less power. Damage is possible. Also, some electronics will misbehave during low power situations. Damage to electronics is generally less likely, but still can happen. If you encounter a prolonged brown out you should unplug or turn off devices that could be damaged: particularly furnaces, refrigerators, pumps, etc. Sometimes it is easiest to throw the main breaker and turn off all power to your home until the problem is resolved.
There is no simple, general protection against brown outs other than generators that switch on automatically when power goes bad. For small devices like computers & TVs you can use a UPS - an Uninterruptible Power Supply - to provide clean, safe power during a brownout, but such devices are not generally suitable for larger items, particularly those involving motors.
Power surges are also common in the mountains, and sensitive electronics can be damaged by them. For individual items you can use power surge suppressors - outlet strips that contain surge suppression electronics - for a nominal cost. UPSs - as mentioned above - will also provide surge suppression and protection for the items plugged into them.
There are also whole house surge suppressors that mount in your main breaker box. These items look like circuit breakers, but lack a switch. They simply sit on the power system and provide surge suppression for the entire structure. This author has seen them be very effective. If you are not comfortable installing breakers contact an electrician to install a whole house surge suppressor for you. Also note that they may not be available for older breaker boxes, so they may not be an option in certain cases.
During A Power Outage
The first thing to know about power outages is that while they are usually not a problem, they can be dangerous. NEVER go near downed power lines. The rule of thumb is to stay as far away from the downed line as twice the distance between the poles supporting it. Yes, that's a long way, but electricity will radiate out in the ground from where a live line touches down, and if you are too close you might become part of the path of least resistance. Also know that a downed line may look dead and yet be live. They don't always jump or arc when they are on the ground, though they may do so. And even if the line is just laying on the ground it could start to jump or arc at any time.
If you are in a car with a live power line on it, stay in the car and call for help.
PG&E's downed line safety guidelines provide more information.
If you experience a power outage, call it in. Thanks to smart meters, PG&E may know about your outage, but then again they may not - not everyone has a smart meter - and sometimes one outage hides another. In addition, PG&E prioritizes repairs based on the number of people and homes impacted, so the more information - and reports - they have the more likely they are to send a crew out to repair your problem quickly. Here are the ways to report a power outage:
- PG&E – Local Information: (800) 743-5000
- PG&E – Outage Line: 800-743-5002
Be aware that both downed power lines and damaged transformers can start fires. If your power goes out it may be a good idea to keep an eye out for signs of fire, particularly during dry times of the year. Calling in power outages may cause PG&E to find and report fires as well, though it usually works the other way around (the fire is reported and PG&E is called in to shut off the power).
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