Getting the Lights On

We were on day three of a major outage when I got word a dear old friend was still without electricity. Unfortunately, such are the nature of major storms that we had many outages on separate lines, known as taps, who were still off and some outages that affected individual customers. She wasn’t forgotten; we weren’t able to get to her line yet. But then I was told she mentioned a couple of other friends who lived by the main line, and how they had their lights on because they knew me.

At this point I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. First, I have about as much pull as an ant’s tricycle. Second, all three knew me, so if I did have that sort of pull, she’d have her lights on, too. Third, we can’t restore power that way because it’s physically impossible. We have to repair the main line first, not only because it restores power to the most customers, but because if we first worked on secondary and tertiary lines that fed off the main line, they still would be without power until we got the main line repaired. No one’s pull is enough to change that situation.

I made sure she was still listed as an outage, and called her back, apologizing that it was taking so long and assuring her that we’d get her lights on as quickly as we were able. We did, sometime before dark, not because she knew me, but because we finally were able to get to her line.

That dear old soul wasn’t the only one with misconceptions of how we restore power. It’s really not all that complicated. Once you know how power gets from the generators to your home, it’s easy to figure out.

First, electricity is stepped up to 46,000 volts or higher to send over the transmission lines. This is to help lessen the drop in voltage due to resistance and what’s called the reactance of the line. Transmission lines ultimately go to individual substations, where electricity is stepped down to between 4,000 and 35,000 volts. Those I’ve worked with are between 7,200 and 14,400 volts. From there, electricity travels over distribution lines to transformers which typically drop it to between 120 and 480 volts, and from there it’s connected to homes and businesses.

If you’ve ever looked at the veins in an oak leaf, you’ve seen a large vein running down the middle, with smaller veins pulling off it, with even smaller veins pulling off of these, and so on until you get to tiny veins. Distribution lines work the same way. You have your main lines leaving a substation, with smaller lines coming off them, and smaller lines coming off those right on down until you get to each customer. When a customer calls and says their lights are out, you look that the closest point back toward the substation (we call it upstream) from the customer as a potential problem. If more than one customer calls in, you start looking for the closest common point between them and the substation. This continues all the way back to the substation itself. Obviously, you start to work at the point that restores power to everyone.

Unfortunately, major outages usually aren’t resolved that quickly. With hurricanes and tornadoes, we often have to rebuild entire sections of line from scratch, and it can get about that bad with ice storms. With storms, outages are usually widespread, since the lines are likely torn down at multiple points. In the case of the friend who’s lights were still out on day three, we could have repaired her damage first, but her lights would have still been off for that long because the line was down in several places between her and the substation. That would have to be repaired before she could get her lights back on. If we did that for all outages, it would take longer to restore power because it would be harder to isolate trouble, and everyone’s electricity would be off until the last damage was repaired.

The most efficient way to restore power is to work from the point that has the greatest number of customers off, usually on the main line, repair all the damage there before moving to secondary lines, and so on down to individual customers. That’s not much consolation to someone who’s been without power for days and at night can see the lights from neighbors who might live on the main line, and calls in wanting to know why their lights aren’t back on.

Since this is based on how the lines feed, it does no good if someone happens to know someone who works at the utility, or has real clout and demands their power be restored. It’s the nature of the problem. In a major outage there’s very little, if any, wiggle room.

Of course, each type of major outage has its quirks that complicate power restoration. Such as the aftermath of a tornado, in which the poles and wire in an section of line can be completely gone, and ice storms where trees often take out the line twice, once when the ice bends them into it, and after it melts and the trees spring back up. Then there are situations like the Storm of the Century back in the 1990s, where the lines went out as fast as we put them back up. But regardless of the cause, how we restore power remains the same.

Something to think about at O dark 30, when the wind is howling and you see a utility truck go by and your lights are still out. Yes, we’re working. Unfortunately, it often takes time to get the lights back on.

Those not in the utility business might be surprised that it didn’t bother us that she called to remind us her lights were still off. We’re not perfect, and things can fall through the cracks, or maybe there’s also an outage affecting just one customer and we leave thinking everyone on the line has electricity. Even in this day and age of “smart meters,” which we can ping and tell if a customer has electricity, things can go wrong. Before “smart meters,” we called to make sure power came back on, and we still do, but the best thing is to call both when your power goes out and if it fails to come back on.

Something else to keep in mind: Knowing how we have to restore power, anyone with medical difficulties who relies on electricity shouldn’t count on us getting power restored in time. Often it just isn’t feasible. The best thing to do is get to a place that has electricity. More than once, even after a bad thunderstorm, I’ve advised customers to get where it’s warm or where it’s cool or where they can power their equipment, because rebuilding the lines can take a while. It’s a good idea to make plans now for what to do when the lights go out.

It really makes sense for everyone to do the same. Getting the lights back on can take a lot of time and work, and it’s one thing where “pull” means absolutely nothing.